TriplePundit has been exploring why and how some boycotts work while others fail, and the case of popular Fox News television personality Bill O’Reilly is a tailor-made example.
O’Reilly built his career at Fox News partly by promoting boycotts. None of those efforts appeared to have any long-term effect. But O’Reilly himself was booted off the air less than two weeks after dozens of advertisers pulled out of his show, “The O’Reilly Factor.”
So, how did advertisers succeed where O’Reilly failed?
When is a boycott not a boycott?
One thing we’ve been learning is that consumer boycotts are notoriously fickle and often fail.
Boycotts can also be promoted without using the word ‘boycott’ or related terms.
Still, even ineffective boycotts can be useful. For example, they can draw media attention to a cause, helping organizations to draw followers and raise funds.
That same factor can be at work in media coverage of boycotts. One good example is Breitbart, an online news organization associated with white nationalism. Breitbart frequently promotes boycotts of top companies. Recent targets include Kellogg, Levi-Strauss and Starbucks. None achieved any measurable success, but they do serve to attract readers and reinforce audience loyalty.
O’Reilly also targeted top companies for boycott as part of his ongoing, highly publicized “War on Christmas” series, with his most recent “naughty” and “nice” list published on the Fox News website in December.
Again, there were no measurable effects, but the series served to engage his audience.
In an article published earlier this week, Simon Maloy of Salon points out that O’Reilly also built his earlier career on a long-running boycott series after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2004.
Do read the full article for all the details. The gist of it is that O’Reilly promoted a boycott of France:
“France wants to embarrass the United States even as it is protecting a killer like Saddam,” O’Reilly said in March 2003, adding: “I don’t call for economic sanctions against France easily, but at this point, it looks like the only way we can send a message to that country which is hurting us.”
O’Reilly’s campaign had no measurable effect on the economy of France. But the series did cement his position as a popular cable television pundit.
In sum, O’Reilly’s boycotts were effective — but only insofar as they promoted his own career.
O’Reilly out at Fox News
Another thing we’ve learned is that boycotts can work under certain circumstances, and the circumstances surrounding the advertiser boycott against O’Reilly formed a perfect storm.
According to one study, companies (or, by extension, brands or even people) are most vulnerable to boycott when they have a good reputation, but are showing signs of slippage.
That description certainly applies to O’Reilly. He is still popular with his core audience, but his identification with the career of Donald Trump became a weak spot for some after he took office as president took office and began floundering in the polls.
O’Reilly’s vulnerability is exacerbated because the main point of identification between himself and Trump is not tax policy or a supposed war on Christmas. It’s especially fraught: harassing and predatory sexual behavior directed at women.
The result is that former fans among the punditry have begun to desert him. That kind of negative publicity may not have resonated with O’Reilly’s viewers, but it certainly did with advertisers and the Fox brand.
Media reporter David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun is one such former fan. In a detailed piece published on April 8, he links O’Reilly, Trump and former Fox chief Roger Ailes into a missile aimed straight at the Fox brand.
Here’s a snip from the beginning…
“Now when I come across him on screen, the only thing that comes to mind is the sick, sexist and predatory culture that is eating like a cancer at Fox News.”
…and here is his conclusion:
“I believe O’Reilly has been diminished by the allegations and the news of his multiple settlements, even if he says he paid his accusers only to protect his children from public airings of their charges.
“But, on the other hand, I may be whistling in the dark to say that — in a culture where someone can boast of sexual assault and still be elected president with 63 million votes. And that president goes out of his way to proclaim his support for O’Reilly.”
That’s pretty much a textbook case of the vulnerability issue.
When boycotts work
Regardless of O’Reilly’s vulnerability, there would be no massive advertiser boycott without two important, long-term trends coming into play.
One is the willingness of individual women to speak out against their harassers, regardless of how it costs them personally.
Last fall, when Trump tried to dismiss his “pussy grabbing” comments as harmless locker room talk, several women went public to describe their experiences with his predatory behavior.
Similarly, Fox attempted to hide O’Reilly’s behavior behind a wall of expensive legal settlements. O’Reilly himself claimed the settlements were intended to protect his family.
However, after news of the settlements broke in the New York Times, other women have stepped forward to describe harassing behavior by O’Reilly.
Not too long ago, victims of sexual harassment would have been dismissed out of hand, but legal norms and social support have evolved to generate a more receptive environment.
When brands become activists
That brings us to the second trend: corporate social responsibility.
Advertisers began to flee “The O’Reilly Factor” almost immediately after the Times story broke.
They did not wait around to get calls from irate customers threatening a boycott. Instead, they leveraged their own CSR messaging to explain why they could not have their brands continue an association with the O’Reilly name.
In many cases, the advertisers were global companies with an international reputation to protect, a factor that outweighed O’Reilly’s appeal to U.S. audiences.
After the exodus Fox News itself did not suffer a significant loss of revenue, since for the most part ad buys were simply shifted to other slots in the lineup.
However, Fox did not wait around for the other shoe to drop. Like its advertisers, Fox has a brand to protect.
Regardless of O’Reilly’s popularity with viewers, Fox decided the risk of a continued association with the O’Reilly brand was not worth the potential for fallout on its own business.
Lesson learned: Consumer boycotts often fail to get traction, but when top corporations flex their buying power, action can be swift and decisive.