If You Play With Shock Jocks, You're Bound to Get Burned

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

To all those MSNBC advertisers rinsing off the Don Imus filth with which you were splattered last week: You get what you pay for.

In this case, what you've been paying for all along is a shock jock with a long history of remarks just as reprehensible as those he aimed at the Rutgers women's basketball team. For whatever reason, Don Imus for years has gotten a free pass for uttering sexist and racists remarks.

And it worked for him -- at least well enough to keep sponsors happy and journalists and politicians lined up to get on his show. His numbers weren't huge, but at 350,000 viewers for MSNBC and 2.25 million listeners on radio, they were respectable.

But this time around -- perhaps because he was picking on college kids -- the media decided to hold him accountable for his remarks.

Then Al Sharpton got involved. From an objective standpoint, Sharpton is as much about getting media for himself as he is the self-appointed leader for his community. And he's certainly done his own part to strain race relations, considering his behavior in the Tawana Brawley fiasco. We'd also love to hear him explain why the comments of a doddering old fool like Imus demand so much attention while the violently misogynistic hip-hop world, which reaches a far larger (and younger) audience, is of little concern.

But like it or not, Sharpton carries a lot of weight. He's a master showman and a savvy organizer. When Al Sharpton mentions the word boycott, people listen. And once he's involved, politicians are soon to follow. So if the talent you're sponsoring is making not-so-convincing apologies on Sharpton's radio program, it's time to consider putting your money on another horse.

Last week, smart marketers weighed their options and dropped the MSNBC show.

And, as luck would have it, MSNBC made the decision easier for the others by canceling the simulcast. CBS Radio eventually followed suit, clearing up the matter for any number of radio advertisers.

One more word to marketers (and both networks): Please resist the urge to act like you were surprised by Imus' remarks and are now standing on moral high ground. You were caught red-handed and shamed into doing the right thing for your brands -- retreating at full speed. It's nothing to brag about.
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