Lowe's Cave-In to Anti-Muslim Protests Is a Blow to Diversity and Our Industry

Pulling Ads Too Soon from a Protested TV Show Puts Marketers on the Wrong Side of Dialogue and Good Will

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While many reality shows leave me numb, I was impressed to find one focused on Muslim-American families. "All-American Muslim" on TLC (The Learning Channel, owned by Discovery Communications) follows five such families living in and around Dearborn, Mich.

But after an outcry led by the conservative Florida Family Association, Lowe 's, the home improvement and hardware retailer, pulled all its advertising from the show. The association objected to the portrayal of American Muslims as "ordinary folks" while "excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish."

Companies periodically pull spots from controversial television and radio shows, but Lowe's action has drawn sharp criticism from elected officials, civic leaders and advertising professionals. The company, which says that "it was never our intent to alienate anyone," is also dealing with the threat of boycotts from Muslim Americans.

The whole incident is a major step backward for diversity, inclusion and engagement, and a blow to the advertising industry. I know little about being Muslim in America and want to know more. Lowe's advertising on this reality program allowed that to happen.

As an American of Japanese heritage, I know too well that groups like the Florida Family Association should be promoting understanding, not suspicion. During World War II, fear stirred up against Japanese-Americans led to the incarceration of thousands in violation of their constitutional rights.

"All-American Muslim" may survive Lowe's move, but the retailer should have remained steadfast in its advertising support. Weighing options in a crisis like this can be difficult, but before pulling an ad, marketers and advertisers might follow these guidelines:

  • Don't feel pressured to make an immediate decision. Consider all possibilities, keeping in mind that any action could have the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish.

  • Talk with the advertising and media agencies that created, planned and placed the ad. They may have contingency plans to mitigate potential problems.

  • Implement your company's crisis communications plan by talking with internal stakeholders, including advertising, marketing, legal, public relations, communications, media relations and management teams. If you don't have a plan, have your communications-public relations team develop one.

  • Engage key external stakeholder groups -- which may support your ad -- in tandem with your management, legal and communications/public relations teams.�

  • Instruct your work force to direct all comments and inquiries about the issue to those responsible for communicating with customers, the media, the public and public officials.

  • Talk with the broadcast station or network, as the to see if the matter can be addressed in a way that satisfies the needs of the advertiser, the station/network and the programmer.

  • Turn a negative situation into a constructive one. Lowe's could lead by example, inviting all parties to a conference or another event dealing with diversity, inclusion and engagement. And companies should support broadcasts that facilitate the exchange of ideas and different viewpoints.

Bill Imada is chairman-CEO of the IW Group, New York.
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