This era of American history has become so politically charged that even the advertising of a coffee maker is a polarizing matter. Executives of the Keurig coffee maker found that out last week. Keurig got drawn into a partisan skirmish over its advertising on Sean Hannity’s Fox News Channel program. Keurig initially indicated on social media that it was pulling its commercials from Hannity’s show, but later seemed to backpedal after Hannity viewers flooded social media with videos showing the destruction of Keurig products.
Keurig and other advertisers are unwilling participants in sociopolitical warfare designed to use advertising dollars as clubs in broader political conflicts. This recent ruckus stems from Hannity’s clumsy on-air defense of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore. Hannity’s inexplicable rationalization of Moore’s reported sexual misbehaviors provided Hannity detractors an easy opportunity to link advertising support of his program to support of Moore’s behavior.
A handful of other advertisers have distanced themselves from Hannity as well, but some of those weren’t regular advertisers on the show anyway. Even after all of the fuss, Hannity’s show still seems to have a stable of prominent advertisers. Friday’s show, hosted by fill-in Jeanine Pirro, featured commercials from Mitsubishi, Lending Tree, Bass Pro Shops, Lincoln automotive, Visiting Angels and a dozen others.
Leading the charge against Hannity is the leftist activist group Media Matters. On its website, Media Matters warns advertisers, “Companies that sponsor Hannity’s show are essentially supporting financially a partisan operation.” That is basically true. But advertisers who pull their dollars from Hannity because of pressure from Media Matters are essentially supporting a different partisan operation. That puts sponsors such as Keurig in a no-win situation.
Of course, Media Matters is rather selective as to where to display its outrage about sexual misconduct. Fox News is an easy target for the left-leaning organization. But Media Matters seems uninterested in warning advertisers away from progressive-minded VICE, which also has a problem with allegations related to sexual misconduct.
Advertisers today must navigate politically dangerous minefields. Placing a commercial in any television show is hardly an endorsement of that show’s content. Corporations just want to sell their products and services, and reach the audiences that might be good buying targets.
Advertising on Hannity makes sense on one level, as does advertising on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show. Both are highly rated and can deliver as many as three million sets of eyeballs on a given night. Most viewers don’t assume that advertisers in those programs necessarily support the views of either Hannity or Maddow.
The reality is that most corporations are oblivious to the content of shows running their commercials. That’s because many corporations use advertising agencies to place their ad buys. Those buys are based on audience demographics, cost per thousand, and psychographic data indicating the likelihood of viewers to purchase the corporation’s product. Most ad buys are done on a content-neutral basis. Thus, some sponsors can be seen on MSNBC and FNC in the same week. An NFL advertising sponsor, for example, doesn’t necessarily endorse national anthem protests or the social problems of some players and owners.
Advertisers, of course, are welcome to place, or remove, their ads from whatever shows they like. The challenge for these advertisers is consistency. If they get bludgeoned by certain interest groups to pull ads from particular shows, they then must vet content of all platforms where their ads are running. Otherwise, corporations become tools of whichever advocacy group can agitate them the most.
Expect to see more activist groups tagging advertisers for the content of sponsored shows. The anti-FNC forces, led by Media Matters, are certainly emboldened after sparking the advertiser boycott that damaged Bill O’Reilly last spring, and could well have played a role in his departure from the channel.
Hannity followers have decried the pressure by advertisers as a stifling affront to free speech rights. Pressuring corporations and using advertising dollars to influence content, however, is well within the First Amendment’s principles of a robust public sphere of debate. The First Amendment surely allows for making rhetorical statements about any cause through the use or withdrawal of commercial speech. Hannity loses no right to speak when an advertiser pulls commercials from his show. He only loses an opportunity to make money from his commentary. The Constitution doesn’t really care about that.
It might actually be good for society if more commercial sponsors paid attention to the content of the programs they fund. Prime time television programming is flooded with graphic violence, sexualized comedy and bathroom humor. Advertisers who support such cultural sewage are helping to guarantee more of it.
Corporate executives would be well advised to huddle with their advertising coordinators to determine the appropriate strategy for placing ads, responding to criticism from pressure groups, and ultimately, which sociopolitical values their companies want to follow. Above all, these corporations need evenness in future advertising strategies, along with a backbone that resists the mob mentality that can come from any side of a political or cultural hot button issue. Surely, those conversations are happening at Keurig right now.
Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.