As Anger at O’Reilly Builds, Activists Use Social Media to Prod Advertisers
By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM and SAPNA MAHESHWARI
Apr 6 2017
In this age of rage, Madison Avenue is finding itself on red alert.
Advertisers are increasingly in the cross hairs of populist activists — aided by the power and reach of social media — who are demanding that brands quickly take sides on divisive social and political issues, posing a new challenge to corporations that usually prefer to stay out of the fray.
After a groundswell of online anger over reports that Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host, had settled with at least five women who accused him of harassment, more than 50 companies pulled their ads from Mr. O’Reilly’s popular prime time program. The exodus followed similar campaigns to pressure brands with ties to President Trump, like L.L. Bean, Uber and advertisers on “The New Celebrity Apprentice.”
“Americans are now demanding that their brands articulate their values and weigh in on political issues, and I think the degree to which they are expecting that is really quite new,” said Kara Alaimo, who teaches public relations at Hofstra University and worked in communications for the United Nations, the Treasury Department in the Obama administration, and the administration of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “What social media is doing is forcing companies to make these decisions much more rapidly.”
Ad boycotts are not new: provocateurs like Don Imus and Glenn Beck lost their cable news soapboxes in part because an angry public used petitions and letter-writing campaigns to force companies to drop their sponsorship.
But the pile-on culture of social media has accelerated the process to such a degree that corporations may find themselves besieged in hours by tens of thousands of online critics.
Just this week, Pepsi was excoriated for a tone-deaf commercial that invoked the imagery of populist protest to sell soft drinks. A Twitter post from the Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that mocked Pepsi was reposted more than 140,000 times. Within roughly 24 hours of the release of the ad, Pepsi pulled it and apologized.
The rapidity of this cycle has tested even the best-prepared marketing giants, creating a niche for public relations specialists who say they can help companies navigate these instant social media storms. One firm offers software and training sessions that simulate “a real-time online attack” on a brand — the corporate equivalent of war games.
The boycotts may give brief satisfaction to social media activists. But many of the sponsors that turned away from Mr. O’Reilly this week are still advertising on Fox News, which reaches the biggest audience on cable television. Fox says it is working with sponsors to address any concerns about “The O’Reilly Factor.” And specialists say there will be little to no financial impact on the network in the near future, though that could change over time.
Brian Wieser, a media analyst at Pivotal Research, said that for now, Fox News was essentially just shuffling inventory — “not unlike if you run a store and have got to figure out what shelf on which you put different products.” In the short term, the fallout could eat into revenue for “The O’Reilly Factor” as cheaper commercials replace big-spending brands, Mr. Wieser said, while the longer-term worry is that advertisers could reassess the annual budgets they spend on Fox News.
Even if the effect is more symbolic than financial, there is little question that social media have proved to be potent weapons.
Since November, a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants has pressured brands into removing ads that appear on Breitbart News, the conservative news and opinion website with close ties to the Trump administration. The group, which posts screenshots of advertising on Breitbart, says it has influenced hundreds of brands — citing Kellogg, Warby Parker and Allstate — to block ads from appearing on the site.