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Why Limbaugh's Advertiser-Offending Attacks Won't Be the End of Him

From Bill Maher to Laura Schlessinger, a Short History of Ad Exodus Under Fire

By Published on .

Rush Limbaugh's remarks last week don't mark the first time the eyebrow-raising utterances of an often-incendiary talk-show host sent his or her sponsors scurrying -- and they won't be the last.

While ad exits make headlines, they don't necessarily account for typical sponsorship cycles. Advertisers may appear to leave, but they more often simply move to the sidelines. Sometimes, they even come back.

For example, when Lowe's announced late last year that it was withdrawing its ad dollars from TLC's "American Muslim," it might have seemed like a death knell for the show -- except for one thing. Lowe's didn't withdraw its ad dollars from TLC, or any of the other cable outlets owned by Discovery Communications. The same has been true for sponsors who grew disenchanted with Glenn Beck on Fox News Channel and even Don Imus during his old show on MSNBC. The ad dollars don't leave the TV network, they just get "re-expressed" somewhere else.

Oftentimes, if an offending celebrity moves on, he or she usually appears again in a new venue -- and even draws ad support.

Below, Ad Age looks at some famous recent talk-show controversies and advertiser reaction to them. Worth noting: All the people who sent GM, P&G and American Express running are still working today.

Bill Maher
Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Controversy: In 2001, Bill Maher, then host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect" makes a comment about the 9/11 attacks just six days after they happen. Speaking about the notion that the terrorists were cowards, Mr. Maher said, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away."

Advertiser Reaction: Sears, Roebuck & Co. and FedEx Corp. pull advertising from the program (and some ABC affiliates take it off their air).

Aftermath: ABC replaces "Politically Incorrect" in 2002 with an expanded version of "Nightline" and then "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Mr. Maher goes on to host "Real Time with Bill Maher," now celebrating a decade on HBO.

Don Imus
Don Imus Credit: Reuters/Chip East

Don Imus

Controversy: Don Imus in 2007 refers to members of a women's basketball team at Rutgers University as "nappy-headed hos."

Advertiser Reaction: A flock of advertisers ask to have their advertising removed from Mr. Imus' radio program or its simulcast on MSNBC. Procter & Gamble, Sprint Nextel, Bigelow Tea, American Express, General Motors and GlaxoSmithKline are among the marketers involved.

Aftermath: Within days, NBC Universal removes the simulcast of Mr. Imus' show from the air, and CBS Corp., which broadcast his radio show, suspends him. Mr. Imus has since returned to the air, his show turning up on Fox Business Network.

Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck

Controversy: Glenn Beck in 2009 calls President Barack Obama a "racist" on his show, which aired on Fox News Channel.

Advertiser Reaction: Many marketers ask Fox News to reallocate their commercials so their ads don't run during Mr. Beck's program. Among those asking for their ads not to appear in the show were Berkshire Hathaway's Geico, Men's Wearhouse and Walmart Stores. Clorox Co.went so far as to say it was taking all of its advertising out of TV talk shows with political themes.

Aftermath: Fox News continued to run the program, though Mr. Beck and the cable outlet parted ways in 2011.

Laura Schlessinger
Laura Schlessinger

Laura Schlessinger

Controversy: In 2010 during a broadcast of her daily talk radio show, Dr. Laura Schlessinger uses a racial epithet when speaking to an African-American woman who was clearly offended by the term.

Advertiser Reaction: General Motors' OnStar and Motel6 pull their sponsorships of the show.

Aftermath: Dr. Schlessinger opts not to renew her contract and moved to a new daily show on Sirius XM satellite radio.

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