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Advertiser Boycotts

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 This is actually a piece I was asked to write for Media Week in October of 2009.  It somehow seemed timely again.  Oh yeah...and I don't think Media Week actually ever ran the piece so I might as well get a little mileage out of it four years later!

Advertiser Boycotts

 By Gabe Hobbs                                                                                                          October 2009

      “That program is getting a lot of attention, so let’s make sure our product is not associated with it.” 

     “Did you hear what that talk show host said?  As a result his ratings are growing significantly and his audience is extremely loyal.  Make sure our ads do NOT appear in that program.”

     Hopefully you reacted to those two statements with a, “say what?”  On the surface those two statements don’t seem to make sense.  They are even oxymoronic if you will.  Why would an advertiser not want his products associated with a program which delivers not only a large audience, but an audience that is extraordinarily loyal and can be easily mobilized for action?  The same things that make these audience members show up for remote broadcasts or a rally for America or a town hall meeting are the same things that will make them walk into Bill’s TV Shop and buy an expensive flat-panel television.  It’s because someone they trust, respect and believe asked them to take action.     

      So how does it make sense then that certain businesses or advertising agencies run away from these shows as fast as they can?  It’s fear of the unknown.  It’s turning over your business, the way you make your living and feed your family, to people (agency people) that only want the safe and easy answer.  To people that don’t understand the athletic motto of “no pain, no gain.”  To the people that are perhaps 27 years old, wet behind the ears and have never listened to a talk radio station in their lives. 

     I always watch with a combination of amusement and disappointment when I see an advertiser boycott.  Has anyone ever heard of an advertiser boycotting a show because the ratings were terrible?  And if so, did it make the news?  Of course not; low ratings or subpar results are great reasons to boycott a show. 

     Having spent the better part of my career working in radio in Florida I understand the notion of what is known as “cume surge.”  For instance, a hurricane lurks off the coast of St. Petersburg.  What do you think happens to the station that owns the news image?  Exactly, their audience swells significantly.  Very often this is not reflected in Arbitron ratings, at least not under the diary system.  The Personal People Meter (PPM) seems to be changing that however. 

      Well, the same thing happens when a talk show host creates or becomes part of a major news event.  Their audience swells significantly.  Yet instead of increasing their frequency of commercials, many advertisers cancel their commercials.  Crazy isn’t it?  I’ve heard business owners say things like, “Well my customers tend to be somewhat evenly split between liberals and conservatives.”  Duh.  Really?  No kidding.  You mean, like the general population?  The general population actually leans slightly to the right but for the most part looks like a bell curve on a five-point scale which encompasses very liberal – somewhat liberal – moderate – somewhat conservative – very conservative.   


So tell me Mr. Advertiser or Ms. Agency…why are you boycotting certain shows because they have a particular political bent or because they have become embroiled in a controversy?  Is it because someone complained and threatened to boycott your product or client if you don’t boycott that crazy liberal or crazy conservative?  Is it because you’re too lazy to actually work the situation to your advantage?  Is it because you don’t know enough about the job you’re actually supposed to be doing to take advantage of opportunity when it falls in your lap?  Is it because you prefer the path of least resistance (human nature)?  Hey, we’ve all had corporate tell us things like, “I don’t care how you do it, just make the problem go away” when situations pop up.  And we’ve all had that feeling of, “yeah, but we’re also going to make an opportunity go away.” 

      If you’ve been in radio, television or the newspaper business for any length of time you know there is a vocal minority out there that will email you and call you threatening all kinds of doom and destruction on your station or newspaper if you don’t fire a certain host or columnist.  We’ve learned through the years to largely ignore this but advertisers and more importantly advertising agencies haven’t.  When these same people call their store and say they will no longer shop there unless they discontinue advertising on these shows, well…the advertisers capitulate and stop doing what is good for their business.  I call it the sweaty palms syndrome. 

      If anything, when controversy finds its way onto a radio or television show advertisers should be lined up to get a position inside that program.  And they should be trying to outbid the other guys in the same line.  In talk radio the P-1’s, or most loyal listeners, will reward these advertisers.  They are easily mobilized to action.  Just ask Bill at Bill’s Khaki’s, Snapple Ice Tea or the hundreds of other direct response advertisers that have discovered the magic of personality endorsements and spoken word radio.  They wanted to be with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  Not because they shared the same political opinions or values, but because they caused people to give them money for their products and because their message was heard by a very large audience that could be easily mobilized into action. 

      If you are advertising on a right-wing talk show do you really think there are a bunch of lefties that will hear the ad and be offended?  If you advertise on Air America do you think those loyal to Rush Limbaugh are there listening and will then organize a boycott against your product?  Or better still, if you advertise on a country music station do you think the rockers will hear that and take offense to the point of avoiding your place of business?  Silly isn’t it?  I know, I know, politics are a little different than country or rock and roll music.  Politics evoke far more emotion and passion.  But again…it’s that same passion that causes the loyal listeners or viewers to buy the products advertised on that show.  If anything the P-1’s will boycott your product for ABANDONING their favorite host or program. 

       When Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama had a war of words in the media his audience didn’t shrink…it grew to new heights.  When the cume swells…THAT is when you want your ads on those programs.  Now dry your palms, sit back and watch the cash pour in.