Political Talk Shows Talk Themselves Out of Ads

Cable TV Genre Draws Viewers, but Advertisers Skittish; Clorox Pulls Out

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Could Glenn Beck be killing off an entire cable genre?

After the recent controversy over the cable talker, marketers seem to be considering pulling ads from the politically oriented cable news shows that have helped NBC Universal's MSNBC and News Corp.'s Fox News Channel thrive in the ratings -- no matter what their political leanings.

GLENN BECK: The Fox News Channel talking head touched off a storm of controversy when he called President Barack Obama a 'racist' who has a 'deep-seated hatred for white people.'
GLENN BECK: The Fox News Channel talking head touched off a storm of controversy when he called President Barack Obama a 'racist' who has a 'deep-seated hatred for white people.' Credit: Ed Hille
Walmart Stores, Berkshire Hathaway's Geico and Men's Wearhouse have already said they've taken steps to ensure their ads will no longer appear during Fox News' "Glenn Beck" show. Procter & Gamble and S.C. Johnson recently said they had never intended to advertise on the show and ads were placed there by mistake. Now Clorox Co. has said it is taking its ad dollars out of all politically oriented talk programs.

"Clorox holds true to our advertising standards and we hold true to our nation's heritage of free expression of political opinions. However, consistent with our standards, we do not want to be associated with inflammatory speech used by either liberal or conservative talk-show hosts," the company said in a statement. "After a comprehensive review of political talk shows across the spectrum, at this time we have made a decision not to advertise on them. Clorox has done very little advertising on political talk shows overall, and given the sometimes inflammatory nature of these shows, we feel our advertising investment is best directed elsewhere."

A website called DefendGlenn.com, which supports Mr. Beck, had previously posted a similar letter from Clorox.

A Fox News spokesperson said advertisers "have all moved their spots from Beck to other programs on the network, so there has been no revenue lost." An MSNBC spokesperson said Clorox hasn't pulled any advertising and has not contacted the network regarding removing any ads from political talk shows. At Time Warner's CNN, "no advertiser has requested to withdraw any dollars from CNN, and we have not seen any loss of revenue," said a spokesperson.

A decision to end support of a political program is particularly thorny. It's one thing to yank money from a really noxious reality program or a drama that features brief nudity. With every political gabfest tilted toward a particular set of beliefs and values, however, an advertiser looking to reach the broadest possible audience could find it difficult to suspend support of a right-leaning pulpit without also cutting ad dollars to a left-leaning one, or vice versa.

"I'll bet [networks] are going to have to dial it down for all of them. [MSNBC's 'Countdown With Keith] Olbermann' will have to drum it down, and Fox is going to have to drum it down," said Ira Berger, director-network broadcasting at independent agency Richards Group. The question the cable-news networks will face should more marketers pull out, he said, is whether they are "about the cause or about the money. We'll find out. Stay tuned."

But those expecting a quieter, more-civil discourse on cable shouldn't get their hopes up. It's not clear that any one marketer's decision to cut ad support would force the extremely radical move of making a host change his or her tone, or of taking that person off the air.

As Clorox itself noted, it's a small advertiser in the genre. According to TNS Media Intelligence, the company in 2008 spent about $231,800 on CNN, about $568,300 on Fox News and about $466,800 on MSNBC.

And it certainly doesn't make the ranks of the top 50 advertisers on cable news, which was dominated in the first half of 2009 by Nutrisystem, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble Co., Delaware Co., Scooter Store and the AARP, according to TNS.

Added complexity
Any marketer's unwillingness to appear during shows featuring popular hosts such as Mr. Beck, Mr. Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly would certainly make the traditional marketer-to-media relationship more complex. These hosts form the bulk of MSNBC's and Fox News' prime-time lineups. Ending support of their shows would confine a particular advertiser's commercials primarily to daytime news programming, where ratings are lower and commercials are sometimes purchased in an arrangement known as "run of schedule," which means they can run at any point during a block of several hours.

Of course, one could make the argument that daytime blocks on the cable-news outlets bring in viewers from many backgrounds, not just viewers of a specific political stripe.

Should other major marketers follow Clorox's lead, however, a shift isn't inconceivable.

There is precedent. In spring 2007, advertisers including General Motors, American Express and Staples decided to bar their ads from appearing during MSNBC's now-defunct morning simulcast of popular radio host Don Imus' program. At the time, Procter & Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline pulled their advertising from the network's daytime schedule because the host had made racist remarks about the women's basketball team at Rutgers University. Not too long afterward, NBC Universal canceled the simulcast of the program.

A deciding factor in any advertiser's stance toward the hot-potato political genre could be how long the issue of advertising on any of these programs remains part of the broader public debate. Typically, decisions to suspend advertising are made to protect advertisers "in the short term," said Steve Kalb, senior VP-director of broadcast media at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen. P&G, for one, declined to comment regarding advertising plans for other political talk shows on Fox News or elsewhere. TV networks will "have to ride it out," Mr. Kalb said. "Whether they reconfigure the lineup or make the programs more accountable, that remains to be seen."

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Jack Neff and Andrew Hampp contributed to this report.

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