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When Boycotts Work: Sean Hannity Takes Up Arms Against Rachel Maddow

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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TriplePundit has been tracking the surge in boycott activity associated with the presidency of Donald J. Trump, and the latest example promises to yield some particularly interesting insights. Fox personality Sean Hannity has begun pushing back against a new advertiser boycott of his show "Hannity," by promoting a counter-boycott against Rachel Maddow of the competing network MSNBC.

The question, as always, is will it work?

The Sean Hannity boycott: will it work?


Before we get into the deep weeds of how this particular boycott and counter-boycott developed, let's review one of the main points that TriplePundit has learned about consumer boycotts: they rarely work.

Especially in this age of social media, boycotts are easy to launch, but they are notoriously difficult to sustain.

Boycotts do tend to be successful, though, when they target a formerly strong brand that is beginning to crack around the edges.

It's also helpful to pick apart what is meant by "work." Generally boycotts are understood to be aimed at forcing a behavior change by the target company. Sometimes, though, they are intended to to put their target right out of business.

One recent example of the out-of-business model is Sean Hannity's sister show on Fox, "The O'Reilly Factor." It was quickly drummed off the air earlier this year by an arguably successful advertiser boycott, but only after its namesake host Bill O'Reilly was exposed to accusations of serial sexual harassment. Without that vulnerability, O'Reilly and Fox may have been able to weather the storm.

So far, Hannity's brand appears to be relatively strong compared to O'Reilly, judging from the initial advertiser reaction.

The Hannity boycott gained steam on May 23rd, when Media Matters published a list of scores of Hannity Show advertisers. That list was then publicized by Rachel Maddow on The Maddow Show. As of this writing, though, only ten of those advertisers dropped their ad buys from Hannity.

One of those advertisers was the military financial services firm USAA -- who also dropped Maddow, citing general concerns over advertising on "opinion shows." Following pushback from customers, USAA, later sent out word that it would reinstate its advertising with Hannity.

After that change of heart, on May 30th Hannity appealed to his Twitter followers to support the advertiser:

Please support them, they are returning to my show -

That small victory may prove to be a hollow one for Hannity, though. As of May 30th USAA, clearly eager to avoid picking a side, stated that it would also reinstate Maddow, pending a more thorough review of its advertising policies.

When boycotts work: the behavior change


Although the Hannity boycott has so far failed to achieve anywhere near the terminal force of the O'Reilly boycott, it has succeeded in motivating a behavior change at the Hannity show.

Media Matters traces the boycott to May 16th, when Hannity revived a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory involving the tragic murder of a Democratic National Committee staffer last summer.

Despite pushback from other conservative media and a direct plea from the victim's family, Hannity insisted on hammering away at the story. By May 20th he worked up to a fever pitch. He fanned the flames with a promise that Kim Dotcom, the fugitive hacker who is credited with posting proof of the "conspiracy" online, would appear on his show.

However, by May 23rd -- when Media Matters published the list of advertisers -- Hannity abruptly backed off. The Kim Dotcom interview failed to materialize, and Hannity has apparently pledged not to pursue the matter on his eponymous show.

Fox further cemented the news blackout on May 23rd, by retracting a story about the conspiracy previously posted by Hannity. The network issued a brief statement indicating the story did not live up to its standards:

...The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.

Hannity put his own twist on the episode. Via Twitter, he first hinted that the turnabout followed a discussion with several lawyers, then stated that he would refrain from reporting on the story out of deference to the family.

When the boycotted becomes the boycotter


As of this writing Hannity still has a home at Fox, but the takeaway from the advertiser boycott is that a relatively small amount of pressure on advertisers was enough to motivate a change. That could signal a deeper weakness, and the cracks on the surface could widen the next time controversy erupts.

With that in mind, it appear that Hannity is tempting fate by continuing to promote the conspiracy online. Here's his Tweet from May 24th:

Not giving up at all. I'm working harder than ever to get to the truth the family wants and deserves. Stay tuned.

Another possible sign of vulnerability is Hannity's latest crusade, the aforementioned boycott of The Maddow Show. On May 30th, Think Progress reported that Hannity is promoting the boycott through his website as well as Twitter.

The boycott was launched by a new group called The Media Equality Project. Apparently aimed at pushing back against the flood of news regarding communications between Russia and the Trump Administration, The Media Equality Project seeks to position The Maddow Show as an enthusiastic purveyor of "fringe conspiracy theories."

The Hill also reported on the new boycott campaign, offering up these snippets from The Media Equalizer:

"As long as Media Matters continues to attack conservatives, we will return them the same kindness."

"We begin with Rachel Maddow who has been the biggest purveyor of lies and propaganda in the media today. Like Media Matters, we will now inform the public and the advertisers about who they are financing."

The tactic of turning criticism back on the critics is a risky bet for Hannity. The Media Equalizer is deeply enmeshed with the DNC murder conspiracy, so Hannity's promotion of the Maddow boycott risks calling more attention to his own vulnerability.

Also not helping matters, Hannity is at a disadvantage in terms of the latest trend in cable TV ratings. The Maddow Show has been propelling a surge in viewership at MSNBC, even when Maddow herself is unavailable to host. Here's the Adweek Scorecard for Friday, May 26th:

Lawrence O'Donnell hosted the No. 1 cable news show of the night among adults 25-54. Ari Melber filled in for Rachel Maddow, and still managed to win the 9 p.m. hour. Tucker Carlson was No. 1 in total viewers.

To top things off, the fallout from Hannity's promotion of the murder conspiracy may have yet to play out in full. News of the first wave of advertiser defections hit last week. Another wave could hit this week, after news surfaced that a key Hannity source -- Kim Dotcom -- acknowledged that he posted fake documents in support of the murder conspiracy.

Advertisers that have adopted a wait-and-see attitude may soon decide that they've seen enough.

Image (cropped): Rachel Maddow by Cole Camplese via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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