Censorship by Advertisers

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Advertisers often have been accused of using their economic influence to dictate media content. Because advertising pays the bills, managers of newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations have a compelling reason to want their advertisers to be happy.

The balance of power in the relationship between advertisers and media companies has not been static, however. In the mid-19th century, U.S. magazine publishers restricted ads to the back pages because ad messages were considered an intrusion on the reader. But by the 1890s, when ad revenue was becoming increasingly important to publishers, ad agencies were able to persuade publishers to position ads throughout magazines and weave editorial matter around them.

The mid-20th century brought another change—advertisers began to choose the editorial environment they wanted their ads to appear in not on the basis of expected reader interest but for its ability to create the proper "buying mood" for products. This strategy was based on the assumption that serious articles did not always create a positive environment for ads, particularly those that depended on fantasy or promoted a less serious product. The 1970s ushered in an era in which publishers created entire magazines that targeted an identifiable audience.

Exerting pressure

Advertisers usually exert pressure on the media in one of two ways: by threatening to withhold advertising (and the revenue it produces) as leverage against unfavorable coverage of the company or its brands and by withdrawing advertising support from media vehicles whose content they find too controversial.

Examining the first strategy, researchers Lawrence Soley and Robert Craig found in 1992 that 90% of the editors of daily newspapers said that advertisers had attempted to influence the content of stories appearing in their papers; 37% acknowledged having capitulated to this pressure.

In1986, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner documented widespread practices of short-weighting and overcharging by Southern California grocery stores. One of the largest local chains, Ralph's, canceled a $250,000 contract with the newspaper and other newspapers based in the area declined to cover the story, even though the Los Angeles country board of supervisors investigated the charges, a development that could have interested readers.

The conflict of interest between publishers and advertisers surrounds magazines as well and was identified by Ms. founder Gloria Steinem as the cause for the demise of the original Ms. in 1987. Bristol-Myers-Squibb Co., for example, withdrew ads for its Clairol haircolor after Ms. ran a story about a congressional hearing into certain hair dyes thought to be carcinogenic. (Ultimately Ms. returned in 1990 without advertiser support by raising subscription prices and reducing its frequency of publication.)

The second tactic, that of withdrawing advertising support from media vehicles that carry controversial content, gained attention when Chrysler Corp., in 1997 the nation's No. 4 advertiser, notified 50 magazines that it would require summaries of upcoming articles and advance notice of any editorial content that encompassed sexual, political or social issues, or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive. These summaries were to be forwarded to Chrysler's ad agency in ample time for rescheduling of ads.

Milton Glaser, co-founder of New York Magazine, predicted that other advertisers would follow suit if editors and publishers did not resist, and he claimed that the practice would have a "devastating effect" on the idea of a free press and of free inquiry. In July 1997, the American Society of Magazine Editors met to discuss the issue of pressure by advertisers; they issued a statement expressing "deep concern" over the trend to give "advertisers advance notice about upcoming stories." Chrysler spokesman Mike Aberlich later claimed that all the magazines in question had signed the agreement to provide advance notice and summaries of upcoming articles.

Other examples

There are many other examples of loss of advertiser support due to controversial content both in print and in broadcasting, including:

  • In 1973, CBS repeated an episode of the TV series "Maude" in which the leading character obtained an abortion. No national sponsors purchased ad time and 39 CBS affiliates refused to run the episode.

  • In 1983, McDonald's Corp. sent a memo to franchise holders advising them not to advertise on the ABC miniseries "The Thorn Birds," in which a Roman Catholic priest became involved in a love affair.

  • In 1992, the NBC series "Quantum Leap" faced advertiser withdrawals amounting to $500,000 when an episode addressed homosexuality in a military school.
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