When controversy rears its head, sponsors run for cover

August 20, 2021
Globe and Mail
By Susan Krashinsky Media Reporter

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, with her pristine ice-blond coif, trigonometric shoulder pads and celebrity paycheque, is hard to picture anywhere near a Motel 6. But the company seemed to think it was a good fit with the firebrand conservative American radio personality, at least until this week.

Motel 6 was just one of a number of companies that advertised with the Dr. Laura Program, who came under fire after the host uttered the “n-word” on an Aug. 10 broadcast. In the midst of the controversy, on Tuesday night, Dr. Schlessinger announced on the Larry King Live TV show that after 30 years on air, she would be leaving the radio business at the end of this year.

Her reasons? Free speech, she said – and concern for the advertisers that are the financial backbone of any radio show.

“I want to be able to say what's on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful, without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates and attack sponsors,” she said.

It’s not the first time that Dr. Schlessinger, 63, has angered listeners and interest groups with statements on her show, but the sponsor pressure that she claims was part of her decision to leave highlights a growing issue: Advertisers are being held to account more often, and more publicly, for the content they support with their media budgets.

“I expect to see more and more of this. The more we grow within the social universe … brands and consumers are talking about various things. Not just about the brand, but what the brand thinks, what they promote,” said Kevin Johnson, senior vice-president and managing director with media planning and buying agency MPG Canada in Toronto.

“The concern is that if things get nasty and things get out of line, a lot of consumers are going to connect the conversation with the brand. And that’s somewhere advertisers really don’t want to go.”

That was clear in 2007, when controversial American broadcaster Don Imus made racist remarks that eventually ended his radio career. A number of advertisers pulled their spots to avoid being associated with the radio show or its TV simulcast – including Staples Inc., Procter & Gamble, General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline and American Express.

Canadian companies have felt the heat as well. Thanks to a blog post that first publicized the issue last summer, Tim Hortons came under fire when a regional office planned to sponsor an anti-gay-marriage event in Rhode Island. The company quickly pulled out of the event, citing sponsorship guidelines that usually aim to steer its ad dollars clear of “religious groups” and “political affiliates”.

Activist group Color of Change ran a long campaign posting the names of advertisers on Fox’s Glenn Beck Program, noting objections to many of the comments the bombastic conservative host made on the show. After Mr. Beck declared President Barack Obama a “racist” with “a deep-seated hatred for white people” in an episode that aired July 28, Proctor & Gamble was counted among a number of companies that pulled their spots. P&G declined to comment on its decision.

Campaigns were swift to approach Dr. Schlessinger’s sponsors last week. A not-for-profit group, Media Matters for America, used social media sites such as Twitter to draw attention to the brands that advertise on the show. Motel 6 pulled its spots on Tuesday.

“We have ended our relationship with the Dr. Laura show, and there will be no future Motel 6 advertising on this program,” the company said in a statement. Motel 6 declined to comment further on its decision to pull its ads.

The controversy started when Dr. Schlessinger spoke with a caller who complained about her husband’s friends using the “n-word” around her. The radio host said the full word 11 times during a debate over whether the caller was being too sensitive.

“I think people spoke. And they don’t want corporations that they support, supporting this speech financially,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, vice-president for research and communications with Media Matters.

Right-wing groups have also pursued such tactics. In the runup to the 1997 episode of Ellen Degeneres’s sitcom, in which the character she played came out as a lesbian, Jerry Falwell and the conservative group the American Family Association called on advertisers to pull their support of the show. Chrysler was one sponsor to do so.

“We made an independent business decision … not to get in the middle of a highly polarized environment,” a Chrysler spokeswoman said at the time.

J.C. Penney, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Domino’s Pizza, Ford and General Motors also chose not to advertise, though some insisted it had nothing to do with the content and that they were simply not scheduled to advertise on the show that week.

“Only a decade later, that’s almost laughable that a sponsor wouldn’t support a gay character,” said Jay Handelman, a professor of marketing at the Queen’s University in Kingston, who has studied the intersection of marketing and consumer activism. Some companies, including E*Trade and Volkswagen, did advertise on the episode. Prof. Handelman said that may have been due to a belief that society in general is moving toward greater acceptance of homosexuality.

“The ultimate judge of this is the end consumer, and where’s the cultural trend going,” he said. “The advertiser’s always thinking of their particular target, and the definition of what is controversial for their target is ultimately the deciding factor.”

Mr. Rabin-Havt said that while consumer activism is not a new tactic, technology is helping groups like his exert more public pressure on companies.

During the Larry King interview on Tuesday night, Dr. Schlessinger objected to such tactics.

“When I started in radio, if you said something somebody didn’t agree with or they didn’t like, they argued with you. Now they try to silence you,” she said. “They try to wipe out your ability to earn a living … they send threats to sponsors.”

MPG Canada’s Mr. Johnson said provocative shows aren’t necessarily a turnoff for advertisers, as long as they don’t cross the line into purely negative territory – as the use of the “n-word” did – and as long as the brand’s image and target audience fits with the content.

“If edgy and passionate and troublesome is a part of your DNA, then you can play in that area,” he said. “But it really has to be looked at very carefully.”



Controversy can have its perks. ABC, for example, reportedly charged $300,000 to $350,000 (U.S.) for a 30-second advertising spot during the Ellen “coming-out” episode, representing a large premium over what it had charged for other episodes in the season, which cost closer to $170,000.

And while notorious shock jock Howard Stern has offended many and incurred heavy fines from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission over the years, his ratings have drawn advertisers. His move to satellite radio in 2005 landed him a five-year, $500-million (U.S.) deal.

This month, Forbes magazine ranked Mr. Stern fourth in its list of “America’s Top-Earning Talking Heads.” Other radio hosts on the list included television broadcaster Glenn Beck and radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

Susan Krashinsky