Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has lost at least 20 advertisers over remarks last Thursday that immigration has made the United States “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” is just the latest target of a tactic that has come to define media in 2018: the coordinated sponsor boycott.
While the number of advertiser boycotts has escalated this year — with stars ranging from Carlson’s Fox News colleagues Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity to TBS’ Samantha Bee singled out by opponents — networks and sponsors alike have been able to ride out the wave of bad publicity without any lasting damage to either viewership or the bottom line.
“Overall, none this year were successful,” TheHill Media critic Joe Concha told TheWrap. “Employers stuck to their guns instead of being bullied by a social media mob with an agenda to get certain voices taken off the field permanently.”
That didn’t stop activists, watchdog groups and even one precocious teenager from taking aggressive swings at networks, on-air talent and others with public campaigns against the companies who financially support them. The move to pressure sponsors to effect change in media is nothing new — after all, it was an advertiser-led boycott, coupled with bad publicity from multiple accusations of sexual harassment, that helped drive Bill O’Reilly from Fox News last year.
Fox News, with its partisan firebrands perennially atop cable news ratings, received the brunt of the most serious sponsor boycotts this year. In addition to Carlson’s current imbroglio, there was one directed at Sean Hannity, stemming from a 2017 show in which he questioned the motives of women accusing Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct. Another was launched by Parkland, Fla., mass-shooting survivor David Hogg against Laura Ingraham after she mocked the teenager on Twitter.
But as 2018 comes to a close, both primetime hosts remain on the air, with their ratings undiminished.
“The Ingraham Angle” actually saw its ratings improve after the boycott, with the six weeks after rising in both overall viewers and in the advertiser-coveted 25-54 year-old demographic. Ingraham netted an average of 2.656 million viewers nightly, with roughly 553,000 of those coming from the key demo. And they’ve held firm since, coming in at 2.7 million total viewers and 514,000 in the demo for the fourth quarter of 2018.
Hannity meanwhile, still dominates his 9 p.m. ET time slot, on track to finish 2018 as the No. 1 program in cable news for the second consecutive year, improving 17 percent among total viewers (3.2 million) and 11 percent among adults 25-54 (640,000).
However, Fox News has taken a hit in booking ad time on its primetime shows, and Ingraham in particular continues to struggle to win back sponsors even as she has maintained her viewership.
“Laura Ingraham seems to have had a less favorable outcome and ad time in her show is still lighter than before the boycott,” Kantar Media’s chief research officer Jon Swallen told TheWrap,
Prior to the Hogg-led boycott in March, “The Ingraham Angle” had around 15 minutes of commercial time, according to data from Kantar Media. That number plummeted as advertisers including Bayer, Hulu, Johnson & Johnson, Liberty Mutual, and Wayfair fled the program, leaving it with between 6 and 7 minutes in the ensuing weeks.
Though Ingraham has recovered a bit, it’s still lower than the pre-boycott levels, clocking in just over nine minutes over the last four weeks, according to Kantar data.
The sponsor boycott against Hannity, on the other hand, has had only a “fleeting” effect, Swallen said. His show’s ad sales have returned to pre-boycott levels, he said, “If not to boycotting advertisers themselves, then to willing replacements.”
In a statement to TheWrap, Fox News ad sales president Marianne Gambelli vowed the network would never bow to “agenda-driven intimidation efforts” and vigorously defended Ingraham and her show.
“We are fully supportive of ‘The Ingraham Angle’ and are very comfortable with her commercial load. Laura is on track to finish 2018 as a top five rated program in cable news and has one of the most valuable and loyal audiences in the industry, which remains our number one objective,” she said. “We will not allow voices like hers to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts by the political operatives at Media Matters who continue to turn a blind eye to every television network but Fox News since it’s the only outlet that doesn’t subscribe to their extreme left-wing agenda.”
She added, “We expect [Ingraham’s] program to return to a regular load next cycle.”
While Hogg and many others have targeted Fox News over the years, they have been aided by organized pressure groups who bring years of institutional knowledge to the fight. Media Matters for America has been pressuring advertisers to drop Fox News since its campaign against Glenn Beck’s breakout program in 2009.
MMFA chief Angelo Carusone was bullish about the prospects of future campaigns and insisted that boycotts have had a subtle but profound systemic effects within Fox News itself.
“We’ve seen faster responses by Fox, either with terminating people (like they did when a contributor called [Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey] Ford a ‘slut’) or by simply reacting to criticism and apologizing,” Carusone told TheWrap via direct message.
“Next year, the pressure will intensify,” he said. “Fox will either change and improve or they’ll start to face litigation from shareholders for incinerating cash in order to advance a political agenda.”
In 2018, righteous indignation crossed the party lines as well, with conservatives taking a page out of the liberal playbook to go after TBS’ weekly satirical show “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” after its left-leaning host called First Daughter Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—” during an episode in May (she soon apologized for her “inappropriate and inexcusable” remark).
“If you’re a conservative who whines and complains every time leftists boycott and destroy conservatives but then you refuse to call for boycotts of leftists… you are the problem,” thundered Daily Wire reporter Ryan Saavedra, who helped lead the charge against Bee. “Either fight fire with fire or quit complaining when one side plays to win and you don’t.”
Brands like Autotrader, State Farm and others dropped out as sponsors and for about two weeks, the show’s commercial airtime was mostly filled with promos for other Turner content. The campaign spooked TBS executives, who promised more oversight over the show.
But within three weeks, “Full Frontal” was back at its typical ad load, though at least one targeted sponsor, State Farm, told TheWrap it planned to remain off the program. Reps for TBS declined to comment.
On the ratings front, however, Bee’s choice of words had no material effect either way — save for a brief viewership bump in the weeks immediately after the firestorm. “Full Frontal” consistently draws between 800,000 and 900,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, including 897,000 for a Dec. 5 episode.
Pressure campaigns have had more tangible success on the digital front, where Matt Rivitz’s two-year-old advocacy group Sleeping Giants has pursued a withering assault against companies who advertise on Steve Bannon’s former operation, Breitbart News. The campaign has employed armies of volunteers to take screenshots of on-page ads appearing on Breitbart and then alert corporate leadership — which is often unaware of where online-ad placement giants like Google and Facebook place their promotional spots.
Since the campaign began shining a light, literally thousands of companies have moved to disassociate their ads from the website. “Sleeping Giants was really started as a reaction to the inflammatory rhetoric aimed at women, minorities and immigrants on Breitbart which, it turns out, was being funded unknowingly by advertisers because of complicated internet advertising programs run by companies like Google and Facebook,” the campaign told TheWrap. “It has resulted in over 4,060 advertisers removing themselves from the site.”
It’s unclear the extent of the impact on Breitbart, thought the company did threaten Rivitz with legal action in October with a stern lawyer’s letter from the firm Clare Locke.
“Sleeping Giants is not a boycott. It is a harassment effort directed against businesses by a politically motivated organization of activists who have received a litigation warning letter from us for their illicit activities,” a Breitbart spokesperson told TheWrap “We intend to vigorously continue debunking and pursuing our claims against them in 2019.”
And more likely than not, advertisers will continue to feel the heat from advocacy groups.