In the latest development, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly lost almost all of the advertisers on his long-running show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” within days after The New York Times broke new that O’Reilly and Fox paid out $13 million to settle sexual harassment claims over the past 15 years.
The swiftness of the reaction is remarkable, but the question remains: Will it work?
When boycotts work
Before delving into the details of the O’Reilly debacle, it’s worth pausing to note that “work” is a broad term that can refer to a wide variety of desired outcomes.
At one end of the scale, a boycott can aim to drive its target out of business. That appears to be the goal of the #GrabYourWallet campaign against the Ivanka Trump brand and other companies affiliated with U.S. President Donald Trump and his family members. In a clever twist, #GrabYourWallet encourages shoppers to not only to refuse to buy Ivanka products, but also to boycott the stores that carry those products.
Crippling the Ivanka brand is an achievable goal, partly because of the rough-and-tumble nature of the fashion business. Even without the political baggage, brands can quickly rise and fall as consumer tastes change.
Driving Breitbart completely off the Internet is a much tougher challenge. Despite the loss of advertising revenue, the site could continue surviving on the wallet of its chief backer, the billionaire Robert Mercer.
Somewhere in the middle of the boycott “work” scale is behavior change. #GrabYourWallet falls into this category as well, because it aims at getting stores to stop carrying the Ivanka line — not to put them out of business.
Another good example is Under Armour. In the face of withering criticism after its CEO Kevin Plank expressed support for Donald Trump, the company did not wait for a boycott to coalesce. It immediately fired off a statement disavowing the comments, and Plank himself took out a full page ad in the Baltimore Sun walking back his support.
At the far end of the work scale, boycotts can simply aim to embarrass or discredit their target.
For example, if the goal of the Sleeping Giants campaign is to discredit Breitbart as a news organization, the loss of advertiser support (more than 1700 companies and counting) is an effective weapon.
At this end of the scale, boycotts can also be aimed at drawing publicity to their organizer. Breitbart, for example, has supported a wide variety of boycotts that seem aimed more at energizing its base rather than actually affecting a business. The Breitbart-supported Kelloggs boycott falls into this category.
The Bill O’Reilly advertiser boycott
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at how the Bill O’Reilly advertiser boycott could work.
At the latest count, ABC News reports that 52 companies have pulled ads from the O’Reilly Factor. Among the notable companies to react swiftly were Advil, Mercedes, BMW, Jenny Craig, Bristol Myers Squibb and Reddi-wip/Con Agra.
By Wednesday, a slew of others joined in (list provided by Buzzfeed):
Invisalign, Propane Council, WeatherTech, AllStar Products, Jenny Craig, MileIQ, Geico, CARFAX, Advil, Subaru, Bamboo HR, Touchnote, Stanley Steemer, Gilead, GoodRx, Amica Insurance, BeenVerified, H&R Block, LegalZoom, Visionworks, Pacific Life, Old Dominion Freight Line, Eli Lily, Southern New Hampshire University, Coldwell Banker Real Estate, and ReddiWip.
Despite all this, the O’Reilly Factor could stay on the air indefinitely. As a group, the advertisers that fled the program have simply shifted their dollars to other Fox programming, so the show could continue with the financial backing of the network.
If that happens, O’Reilly and his supporters could make a good case that the boycott failed.
Turning the boycott tables
On the other hand, there is also a good case to be made that the boycott succeeded in embarrassing and discrediting its target. News of the boycott — and O’Reilly’s legal history with sexual harassment — is in wide circulation on social media and among news organizations. That includes a particularly scathing long form commmentary in the Baltimore Sun by former O’Reilly fan David Zurawik.
In addition, by swiftly pulling out of the O’Reilly Factor, the advertisers accrued a fair amount of positive publicity to themselves.
Several have used the opportunity to confirm their support for gender equality and women’s rights. Buzzfeed (see link above) has compiled a list of statements including this from Mercedes-Benz:
“The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now,” a spokesperson for company told BuzzFeed News.
Buzzfeed also cites a representative statement from Hyundai:
“…As a company we seek to partner with companies and programming that share our values of inclusion and diversity. We will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation as we plan future advertising decisions.”
The takeaway from all this is that advertisers have turned the tables on boycotters.
Rather than waiting for potentially embarrassing consumer boycotts to take hold, companies are becoming more vigilant about where they advertiser, and how that could affect public perception of their brand.
In effect, companies have become the boycotters, and they are only just beginning to realize the depth of that power.