How trying to shame advertisers could backfire big time

This week, advertisers withdrew their sponsorship from multiple shows that attracted backlash from both the left and the right. But is pressuring advertisers to withdraw funding the right way to protest?

by Brent Bambury

Alex Jones, founder and main mouthpiece of the fringe paleoconservative site InfoWars has made a career performing a frothing and unhinged form of paranoid commentary.

Among the conspiracy theories he's floated: Satanists are taking over America, the government can control the weather and the Clintons are murderers.

Jones is an oddity of the fringe who edged closer to the mainstream when Trump was elected. As a candidate, Trump appeared on Jones' radio show and told him, "Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down."

He sees the hand of the deep state everywhere, and has called shootings like the one in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 "false flags" — code for deceptive, covert operations.

With his claim the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 very young children was a hoax, Jones' act crossed over from bizarre performance into something more callous and cruel.

So when Megyn Kelly tweeted she would be interviewing Alex Jones on her NBC news show, people deeply offended by his refutation of the Sandy Hook murders spoke out, and one of her advertisers bailed.

JPMorgan Chase pulled all of their ads from NBC News until after Sunday, when the segment on Jones is scheduled to air.

"As an advertiser, I'm repulsed that @megynkelly would give a second of airtime to someone who says Sandy Hook and Aurora are hoaxes," their chief marketing officer said.


The Bank of America and Delta Airlines pulled their sponsorship of The Public Theatre's performance of Julius Caesar over outcry from Trump supporters. (Courtesy The Public Theatre)

Advertisement as activism vs. brand neutrality

JPMorgan Chase wasn't alone this week in yanking their support for content they didn't like.

A Public Theater production of Julius Caesar in New York City that compared the assassinated Roman emperor to Trump also lost sponsors Bank of America and Delta as the controversy simmered.

And in Canada and the United States, an anonymous group called Sleeping Giants is waging a social media campaign to get advertisers to blacklist sites like Breitbart and The Rebel.

But Cynthia B. Meyers, an advertising historian and the author of A Word From Our Sponsor says pressuring advertisers over the content they fund may have consequences.

Professor Cynthia B. Meyers

"I'm a little bit worried about the resurgence of advertiser boycotts of content that might be politically controversial," Meyers told me this week on Day 6.

She says the similarities to the McCarthy-era blacklists are cause for concern.

"In the 1950s when advertisers were controlling and sponsoring television programs, they were under a lot of pressure from anti-communist activists and this ended up in a situation where they were blacklisting actors for having the wrong political views."

Advertisers moved away from the full sponsorship roles they played in the 1950s when their brand was more closely tied into the content of a show.

Instead, they chased audiences based on demographics. Controversial shows in the 1970s brought huge audiences and advertisers largely chose to stay with them. 

"Controversy attracts audiences, and some advertisers are more averse to controversy but most advertisers know that's where the audiences are. And that's why advertisers end up advertising on controversial programs," Meyers says.

In doing so, advertisers became brand neutral, less concerned about content.

JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Delta took a step away from brand neutrality this week when they objected to the content they were helping to fund. And Meyers thinks this could lead to a crisis in funding, and a loss of content.

"If [advertisers] feel that they are being held responsible for other people's expression and that that's going to harm their brand, they're going to get more and more nervous about advertising and any kind of content," Meyers says.

So a campaign to target advertisers because you don't like the content they're sponsoring may have unintended consequences.

"If advertisers are intimidated into only being associated with certain kinds of content, that's going to work against all different kinds of content. So there might be boycotts being called against right-wing content right now, but there will be boycotts called against the left-wing content as well. And what you then have is...this degradation of the entire ecosystem."


The polite social media campaign targeting advertisers

Online, it's a slightly different world.

Sponsors buying online ads often have no idea where they will appear. Activists Sleeping Giants and their supporters are targeting right-wing content by telling advertisers when their ads are running alongside material they may find objectionable.

When their ads pop up on Breitbart and The Rebel, Sleeping Giants takes a screenshot and posts it online.

"Please consider removing them from your media buy," they politely suggest.

"They can argue that all they're doing is educating the advertisers," Meyers says.

"Yet they're still telling that advertiser that…being associated with that content is going to rebound negatively on their brand."

"Again, we're on this slippery slope when you start heading in that direction, then the advertiser is making all sorts of judgments and decisions about what is acceptable content and what is not."

Meyers says the explosion of content and the fragmentation of mainstream media have made it more difficult for advertisers to make judgement calls about the placement of their ads.

When a company bought an ad in the Wall Street Journal, they understood the content with which their product would be aligned. Now, when fringe online media competes for dollars and Alex Jones is on prime-time TV, the landscape is more complicated.

"Advertisers have always chosen media content that they thought did fit their brand. Now we have all sorts of alternative sources of information and those alternative sources of information are breaking all those rules that this entire ad system was set up to serve."

Meyers is not optimistic about the entrenched and polarized landscape. She has no policy prescription and she doesn't see any solution, but she believes the answer isn't boycotts, and it's not wise to put advertisers in that position.

"I am concerned that when organizations use boycotts as their strategy to deal with political conflict, I believe that it exacerbates the conflict. And when they put advertisers in the middle like that, it actually risks the entire ecosystem. So the advertisers shouldn't be in the 'judge and jury' position."

"And during the blacklist era of the '50s, they really felt like they were in they really didn't want to be. So I don't know what's going to happen."

The Alex Jones interview with Megyn Kelly is still scheduled for Sunday and so far, NBC's other advertisers are holding tight.

To hear the full interview with Cynthia B. Meyers, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.