Originally published as The Big Story in the Brands Taking Stands weekly newsletter; click here to sign up.
Free speech, boycott threats, company and consumer values, the immigration debate—big issues have risen to the top of the corporate agenda once again. The occasion: Advertisers have withdrawn their support from a TV program after a pundit voiced strident opinions that they say run counter to their values. Once again, the major players are a Fox News television program and its sponsors.
“We will not be advertising on Mr. Carlson’s show in the coming weeks, as we reevaluate our relationship with his program.” That’s the punch line to a tweet by Pacific Life, the insurance company whose ubiquitous whales-breaching ads seem to blanket the TV landscape, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson's show.
The impetus for the announcement was Carlson’s characteristically incendiary comments on immigration— specifically, those Central American groups now gathering at the Mexican-U.S. border. In his opening monologue, Carlson claimed “an endless chain of migrant caravans” is mounting an “invasion” that he said “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” The segment ended with a Pacific Life ad.
Flagged by activists in the Twittersphere as a racist statement by activists, comments protesting Carlson’s opinions and pointing out Pacific Life’s advertising support went viral, prompting the company’s decision.
Pacific Life’s reply to the pundit’s anti-immigrant rant was a flat pushback: “As a company, we strongly disagree with Mr. Carlson’s statements.” The company’s tweet went on to state its position, one rooted in its brand identity: “Our customer base and our workforce reflect the diversity of our great nation, something we take great pride in.”
This is no small move. In the past 30 days, Pacific Life has aired 69 spots from its 23 nationally broadcast TV ad campaigns, with a spend ranking of #466 compared to all other advertisers, according to iSpot.TV. The company is ranked #313 on the Fortune 500 list; counts more than half of the 100 largest U.S. companies as clients; recorded $9.4 billion in revenue in 2017; and has assets of $158 billion.
In other words, there are big ad dollars on the line here, as a 150-year-old brand measures its reputation against a media outlet’s ideological position to which it objects.
Pacific Life has been joined by the job site Indeed, which said, “Our site is for everyone, regardless of background or beliefs,” and confirmed that it is “not currently advertising on Tucker Carlson Tonight and has no plans to advertise on this program in the future.”
Other companies are adding to the ad dropout list. Bowflex, the fitness training company, announced its withdrawal of support: “We have requested that Fox News remove our ads from Tucker Carlson Tonight in the future,” announced parent company Nautilus.
And SmileDirectClub has issued a policy that would prevent its ads from continuing to run on Carlson’s program. In a statement, it said that it is “actively working with our media buyers to confirm that SmileDirectClub is no longer running our ads around any political opinion shows.” That stance sidesteps questions of taking a position in favor of withdrawing from any controversy over socio-political issues.
A Fox Network spokesperson described the events as a social media assault by “left-wing advocacy groups” on companies “in an effort to stifle free speech.”
Of course, no company is abridging Carlson’s right to speak on Fox News—just questioning whether it should be expected to pay to support his opinions. As more brands take stands on public policy issues, look for them to take positions that align with their interests. In this case, those who favor a robust anti-immigrant stance are running head on into one of the strongest movements in business today: The effort to expand, not restrict, diversity and inclusion in workforces, and to reflect the diverse consumer market to which companies must appeal to be viable.
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Image: AdobeStock/JP Photography
John Howell, Chief of Thought Leadership and Editorial Director, is a co-founder of 3BL Media, the parent company of Triple Pundit, begun in 2009. Howell oversees original editorial content procurement and creation. He is also the author of the weekly Brands Taking Stands Newsletter. He has written and edited for Elle, Artforum, High Times, the New York Times Magazine, and the LA Times. Howell is based in Wonalancet, NH.