It’s a situation no advertiser likes to be in: a media property you advertise on is at the center of a controversy involving politics and race. Advertisers on Fox News’ Glenn Beck Program found themselves in this situation last month when the show’s host, Glenn Beck, called the president of the United States, Barack Obama, a “racist”. In large part due to one organization’s grassroots campaign, nearly 50 advertisers have reportedly pulled their ads from Beck’s show.

Yet boycotting Beck may not be such an easy decision for many of them because of one fact: Beck’s controversial statement hasn’t put a dent in his show’s popularity. In fact, the Glenn Beck Program is “pure ratings gold“, pulling in the greatest number of cable news viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 at night even though he airs in a pre-primetime slot.

Are advertisers pulling their ads from the Glenn Beck Program making the right decision? Or are Beck’s ratings too good to ignore?

There are two philosophical questions advertisers must address here:

  • When should they make the decision to boycott a particular media property?
  • Except in extraordinary circumstances, should they even be making such decisions at all?

When it comes to answering these questions, the situation with Beck offers some interesting food for thought.

A controversial media property is a difficult thing for advertisers to grapple with. When controversy strikes, advertisers may find themselves pressured to distance themselves from the property. When the controversy is related to touchy subjects like politics and race, the pressure can be even more palpable because it’s naturally uncomfortable to be caught in the crossfires.

Yet pressure and discomfort can distort logical decision-making. Here, we see that despite the controversy that has erupted and the backlash Beck has received from some camps, his ratings continue to climb. Clearly, while many are incensed by his comments, many others seem to be hearing something they either agree with, find interesting or think has some entertainment value.

Should advertisers pass judgment on Beck’s content? Perhaps, but if they do, they risk shunning a large number of consumers. Bank of America, Kraft and Proctor & Gamble are listed amongst the advertisers that have reportedly pulled ads from Beck’s show. But do any of these advertisers believe that Beck’s viewers aren’t their customers or potential customers? Do any of these advertisers have reason to court consumers who don’t watch Beck over those who do?

Obviously, Beck didn’t do himself any favors by calling the president of the United States a racist. But the organization leading the charge to pressure advertisers into pulling their ads for his show, Color of Change, has made an equally extreme statement: Beck’s show is “repulsive, divisive and shouldn’t be on the air“. Reasonable people might agree with the first part of that statement but anyone who supports the idea of a free society (and free speech) would probably argue that the idea unpopular speech be shut off from the airwaves is itself repulsive and divisive.

Needless to say, discussions like these are a can of worms. But generally, I think advertisers are best off staying above the fray and avoiding decisions that are based on issues with which they’re not concerned.

Color of Change’s template letter that is sent to advertisers of Beck’s show states “I presume your company does not want to…have your products or services associated with the kind of views and tactics espoused by Beck” but I personally doubt that someone who sees an ad for Applebee’s on the Glenn Beck Program is going to assume that Applebee’s shares Beck’s ideological position. Just as I doubt that someone who sees an Applebee’s ad on a sleazy reality TV program is going to associate Applebee’s with the promiscuity, drinking, and other shameless and degrading behavior that is frequently on display on these programs. If advertisers are suddenly going to buy into the notion that a television ad is an endorsement of the show on which it runs, most advertising execs should probably head for Confession. Immediately.

Bottom line: except in the rarest of circumstances, advertisers should focus on what matters. Reach, demographics, ROI. Most of the time, consumers are smart enough to understand that advertisers don’t necessarily support the content they advertise alongside. And for that reason, the vast majority of us don’t really care about who advertises where. When advertisers start making decisions based on pressure from groups with agendas unrelated to their own, they do make an endorsement of sorts and they jump head first into the very controversy they’re trying to avoid.

Photo credit: matthewfilipowicz via Flickr.