Imus Mess Makes Arbiters of Advertisers

Proliferation of Options Allows Marketers to Bail Out Fast From Controversy

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Procter & Gamble was the first to walk away from Don Imus on April 6 -- yes, that was the Friday before the media frenzy erupted and almost a full week before the radio host's corporate bosses realized they had no choice but to pull the plug on the curmudgeon's show.
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Photo: Newscom

P&G quickly pulled its ads because top executives found Don Imus' comments to be 'offensive to our target audience.' Ultimately, it was advertisers -- rather than network executives -- who sealed the controversial radio host's fate. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

Companion Commentary:

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Donny Deutsch Viewpoint: 'Nice Is the New Black,' and CEOs Will Insist on Positivity

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If the whole Imus debacle tells us anything, it is that today the marketers are truly the reigning power in the fragmented media world. The week's events underscored what many pressure groups had proved in similar content controversies -- that the best way to effect change in media is to go after the ad dollars. There are so many media options today that it is easier for a marketer to pull out of a media outlet than put up with the negative publicity and the risk of a fall-off in sales.

What's more, marketers have grown accustomed to those who have grievances about media content clogging up their inboxes and switchboards. Hence, P&G getting out of "Imus" two days after he first made his "idiot comment meant to be amusing" about the Rutgers women's basketball team; well before Al Sharpton arrived on the scene; and at a time when only a small handful of media outlets had even reported the incident.

Opening salvo
The first response from a P&G spokeswoman summed up why: "We think we're accountable first to our consumers. This particular venue where our ad appeared was offensive to our target audience. And so that's not acceptable to us."

P&G was soon in good company. American Express, General Motors and GlaxoSmithKline pulled their advertising -- not only from Mr. Imus' show but from MSNBC altogether. A GlaxoSmithKline spokesman said the company would return "as soon as we can be sure MSNBC can meet our own advertising standards." Geico and Staples followed suit.

Other marketers were quick to note they weren't really Imus supporters. Spokespeople for both Sprint and 1-800-Pet-Meds said their companies had bought MSNBC's daypart that included Imus but not his show specifically. Both asked MSNBC to guarantee their ads would not appear during "Imus in the Morning," even in reruns, if that was what would air during the host's two-week suspension (the initial response from CBS to the outcry about the shock jock's remarks).

Fast friends
A Sprint spokesman echoed P&G: "We do not want our advertising associated with content which we, our customers and the public find offensive."

In all, the marketers leaving MSNBC represented an estimated $2.5 million in ad revenue, and that, combined with the public outcry, was more than enough force him off the air.

"In any kind of entertainment situation, for whatever reasons, advertisers or listeners who become disgruntled with a product are certainly well within their rights to choose where they put their dollars or spend their time," said Fred Jacobs, president of Detroit radio-consulting firm Jacobs Media.

Some believe the incident will put more pressure on the morning-drive-time hosts who have happily followed in the controversial footsteps of Mr. Imus and Howard Stern to tread lightly. Chat-show host and adman Donny Deutsch, among others, has gone public with his belief that this will, in fact, presage a bigger movement by advertisers to steer clear of what he calls "hate TV" -- namely the chat shows on both TV and radio that center on angry debate and name-calling (see story on P. 1).

'Kinder, gentler jabs'
Is this really the end of the shock-jock era? Probably not. Those who can aggregate sizable audiences will remain in demand for some time to come, and there are plenty of desirable demographics -- say, 16- to 34-year-old men -- who likely would eschew a diet of nice-only media. But it may usher in a short period of kindler, gentler jabs and less outrageous stunts, and it will certainly ensure more marketers will be as quick to press the eject button as P&G was on this occasion.

Perhaps the biggest irony in all of this is that while the Imus debacle may -- having hit the front page of The New York Times three days running, for example -- be remembered as the most notable demonstration of audience and advertiser pressure bringing down a broadcaster who had offended, the broadcaster wasn't really the media behemoth he was painted as last week.

"Imus in the Morning" represented a small slice of revenue for both networks that simulcast his three-hour morning show. Estimates of the show's worth ranged from $15 million to $22 million annually for home station WFAN-AM in New York. The show was carried by 61 stations outside New York, but his audience was just 1.6 million people -- and Arbitron gets to that number only by counting all the people who said they heard his show for at least five minutes at some point throughout the week.

For those who buy radio, reaction to his departure could be summed up as: "Don't let the door hit you on the way out." Rich Russo, director-broadcast at JL Media, said Mr. Imus was a "nonentity. He has no ratings. He has nothing on radio. Sixty percent of his audience is over 50. He's ranked 29th in New York. He's also 66 years old."

Small potatoes
On MSNBC, the show was an easy way to not have to fill the morning news slot. While it performed respectably, Imus consistently came in behind CNN in the same daypart, attracting 271,000 households compared to CNN's 374,000. Top spender General Motors accounted for only $691,000 for 2006 -- chump change when you consider the same company dropped more than $2 million on a single spot during the Super Bowl this year.

What Mr. Imus represented and attracted was an upscale audience -- mostly Wall Streeters and literate, liberal East Coast types -- that was hardly typical of the "shock label" attached to contemporaries Howard Stern and Opie & Anthony. His show was a favorite stomping ground of politicians and media pundits and, as such, was viewed as highly influential in those insular circles. Politicians announced candidacies, and reporters were eager to flog their books or scoops.

But that all came to end last week when CBS Chairman-CEO Les Moonves followed NBC's lead and fired the 30-year veteran of the airwaves. "Imus in the Morning" first aired in September 1979, became nationally syndicated in 1993 and began simulcasting on MSNBC in 1996. Though both CBS and MSNBC brass cited "integrity" and "goodwill" among their reasons for pulling the plug, the fact that they had lost ad dollars played a role too.

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Advertisers Avoiding Trouble: A Timeline

AUGUST 2002
Advertiser: Boston Beer Co.
Show: "Opie & Anthony Show"
Event: The "Sex for Sam" contest segment of the "Opie and Anthony Show," co-sponsored by Boston Beer Co., encouraged people to engage in sexual intercourse in public places -- one of them near New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Result: A public apology by Boston Beer Chairman Jim Koch and cancellation of the program.


OCTOBER 2004
Advertisers: Lowe's Home Improvement and Tyson Foods
Show: ABC's "Desperate Housewives"
Event: Marketers such as Lowe's and Tyson thought the show was too racy and violent, and withheld ads in its first season.
Result: Enough other advertisers were more than happy to buy up a bona-fide hit.


DECEMBER 2005
Advertiser: Ford Motor Co.
Event: The American Family Association
pressured the car company to drop ads targeted to gays in order to "clean up its act" and be more "family-friendly."
Result: Ford first agreed to pull ads, but then reversed its decision and continued to advertise Volvo in gay and lesbian publications and said it planned to maintain its "commitment to diversity as an employer and corporate citizen."


JANUARY 2006
Advertisers: Sony, Viacom Paramount, Combe's Just for Men, Chattem's Icy Hot and Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Lotion
Show: NBC's "Book of Daniel"
Event: After striking a deal to advertise on the NBC dramedy. marketers felt the backlash of signing on to such a controversial show. The American Family Association persuaded advertisers to withdraw their support.
Result: A canceled show.

AUGUST 2006
Advertiser: General Motors Corp.
Show: CBS's "Survivor: Cook's Island"
Event: Uproar ensued after CBS reveals that contestants will be separated by race. Although GM was the show's top advertiser for 12 seasons, it severed ties with the reality show. The company claimed he show no longer fit into GM's business objectives, and it was too hard to incorporate a vehicle on an island.
Result: The show quickly merged tribes into multicultural groups early in the season, but lost out on the potential $12.8 million GM would've spent on advertising, as well as Home Depot, Campbell Soup and Coca-Cola North America.

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Contributing: Jack Neff, Brooke Capps and Rich Thomaselli
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