Laura Ingraham once again got in hot water over comments on her show at the end of May.
In a segment deemed offensive by her critics, Ingraham displayed a graphic entitled “Prominent Voices Censored on Social Media,” featuring many conservative people who have been banned or disciplined on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Some people found one of the people displayed on the graphic as particularly offensive. Quickly, one of Ingraham’s advertisers took to social media themselves and announced that they were no longer going to advertise on her show because “Laura Ingraham expressed alarming views that run entirely counter to the values that we hold as a company.”
This is a process that is repeating itself. Conservatives in the media say something controversial, ushering in an advertiser exodus as sponsors have a moment of clarity, realizing their values “do not align.” For example, Bayer took to Twitter saying that it is going to stop advertising on both Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson’s shows in March. As of June 1, Bayer is back advertising on both Fox shows. It seems like companies like Bayer might have realized that kowtowing to outrage online isn’t good for their bottom line, but advertising with the lucrative Fox demographic is.
We’ve seen this before. Conservatives in media today are not under threat of state-sponsored prosecution but instead are subject to corporate boycotts at the direction of groups such as Media Matters, Sleeping Giants and MoveOn.org. Today it is subdued, but the song remains the same: Americans in powerful positions attempt to control the speech of other Americans with whom they disagree.
Sponsorship doesn’t mean you share values with talent. It says you wish to share your values with that talent’s audience.
It’s time for us to re-examine.
“Republicans buy sneakers, too” probably isn’t what Michael Jordan said when he was asked about his political views and why he doesn’t share them with the public. In fact, it’s an understatement. The last five years have given rise to the direct brand revolution, with digitally-minded startups disrupting every category, resulting in hundreds of so-called unicorns like privately held companies worth more than $1 billion. Many of these unicorns grew through leveraging the power of conservative media outlets and programs. Ironically, marketers associated with these brands are overwhelmingly liberal, with no interest in political controversy.
Direct brands are data-driven, so when their analytics reveal conservative programming systematically outperforming inoffensive content, they trust the numbers. So, brands like Casper, Blue Apron, ZipRecruiter or 23andMe hold their noses and continue pumping promo codes and vanity URLs into conservative podcasts, talk radio and even Fox News, thinking to themselves, “I wish I knew how to quit you, Ben Shapiro.”
In all this, there is confusion about what sponsorship symbolizes.
While conservative programming yields superior results, many marketers abstain from it for fear of promoting values differing from than their own. This is not only faulty thinking; it is dangerous to democracy and a slippery slope. Sponsorship doesn’t mean you share values with talent. It says you wish to share your values with that talent’s audience. Carried to the extreme, identical values as a prerequisite for sponsorship means corporations dictate where free speech is acceptable and where it is not.
Do we really want marketers and special interest group agendas dictating what programming lives or dies? Will we pull sponsorships from sporting events because of an athlete’s behavior? What will we do when conservative activists apply likeminded pressure toward liberal talent every time they say something controversial?
Controversial events deepen the divide. Brands receive accusatory tweets, spurred by political advocacy groups and soon head for the hills, losing the leverage they accrued through millions of dollars already spent. Imagine if these brands engaged with talent directly, sharing concerns, challenging positions and giving them something to consider? If you keep writing the checks, talent will listen. If you don’t, you’re another fair-weather friend who just proves them right in their own minds. Let’s stop pretending there is righteousness in segregation. As Lincoln, captain of his team of rivals, once said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Now is the time for marketers and business leaders to come out and say it: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will sponsor your right to say it.”
Your customers and your country seek bravery from brand leaders who are unafraid to work together with people who are different in pursuit of a united vision toward a greater good.