Advertiser excuses for boycotting Tucker don’t add up

Fox News Channel’s outspoken host Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonNBC-Universal rejects outside investigation of Matt Lauer Megyn Kelly appearance on Fox News draws more than 4 million viewers The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy MORE has been quite upfront about his position on uncontrolled immigration across the southern border. He has commented about the topic countless times on his prime time FNC show, and anybody who has watched the show knows his staunch stance.

Carlson’s comments a week ago, however, prompted some advertisers to pull their commercials from the show. In commenting about the need for border security, Carlson said immigrants make the nation “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” This rhetoric is consistent with Carlson’s position in the two years he has hosted an evening hour on FNC.

A parade of advertisers pulled their commercials from the show in response to Carlson’s perhaps inartful, but not inconsistent, comments. They have every right to do so. Advertisers can put their money in whatever marketing venue they choose, and pull their money on whatever whim suits them.

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The list of advertisers ditching Carlson’s show now numbers around 20, and includes big-name firms such as Pacific Life, Bowflex, Land Rover, IHOP and Just for Men. Pacific Life issued a statement indicating its disagreement with Carlson, going on to proclaim: “Our customer base and our workforce reflect the diversity of our great nation, something we take great pride in.”  Another advertiser, SanDisk, stated through its parent company that it was leaving Carlson because “We embrace diversity and inclusion, and work with advertising partners who share our core values.”

Interestingly, most of these advertisers are not abandoning all programming on FNC, just moving their commercials to other FNC programs. Principled advertisers who want to make a stronger moral statement might ditch the channel that provides Carlson his platform.

A key issue in this flap is why these self-righteous advertisers supported Carlson’s show in the first place. It’s not like he parachuted on to FNC prime-time in mid-December and suddenly decided to take on immigration policy with blunt commentary. These offended advertisers should go beyond their condemnation of Carlson’s most recent comments to explain why they initially placed commercials on his show.

Absent such explanations, it appears these advertisers got pushed into retreat because of social media outrage generated after Carlson’s clumsy remarks. Various political action groups such as Media Matters jumped on the Carlson commentary, using the opportunity to challenge advertisers whose spots appear on his show. Nothing improper about that; such groups are flexing their free speech clout. Using community pressure to push cultural initiatives is an age-old strategy.

The advertisers, however, might want to consider how much they want to cave to the winds of social-media pressure. Clearly, major advertisers pay little attention to where their commercials get placed; they just want to generate revenue by reaching audiences that might purchase their products. Advertisers who bail at the first hint of controversy, however, are essentially turning over their marketing strategies to political activists.

Advertisers who want to go all-in on making moral statements with commercial placements are going to have to fully, carefully screen the media outlets that receive their buys. They also will have to develop clear, transparent policies for which programs get their dollars and which don’t. Odds are that some of these sanctimonious advertisers who abandoned Carlson right now have commercials on other shows that contain pointed commentary, or gross violence, or indecent humor. Some might even have commercials on CBS, the network whose chairman resigned under accusations of sexual misbehavior.

Indignant advertisers might bolt, but Carlson is not going anywhere. FNC has withstood advertiser unrest in the last year that targeted the shows of Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. Those shows still garner solid ratings and plenty of commercial support. 

FNC has issued statements of support for Carlson, saying the channel is standing up to censorship and supporting free speech. But this episode is not exactly about free speech; Carlson is still speaking, and has a big platform on which to do it. This episode is, instead, about market forces and the rhetorical levers used for the clash of ideas in the public sphere.

Advertisers have been snookered into participating in this wrestling match. They would be wise to figure out a corporate policy about how they spend their commercial dollars, announce it, and then stick to it. Otherwise, corporations such as Pacific Life might as well allow activist groups to manage their advertising campaigns.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter, and as a political media consultant.