Even by the sordid standards of U.S. politics, the situation in November 2017 was filthy: Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate, faced allegations that he’d tried to seduce teenagers as young as 14 while in his thirties. And one of his most outspoken defenders, at least initially, was Sean Hannity, the Fox News and conservative talk radio host, who cast doubt on the women’s stories and entertained the idea that Moore’s relations with the older teenagers had probably been consensual. (Hannity later walked back his defense of Moore, saying the candidate ought to explain any “inconsistencies” in his accounts.)
Activists on social media responded by pulling out a playbook that has been used repeatedly over the past few years. Led by Media Matters, the Washington, D.C.-based media watchdog focused on conservative new outlets, they pushed Hannity’s advertisers to boycott him. The approach, which involves publishing a list of a program’s backers online and rallying people to call out those brands on Twitter and elsewhere, had helped get Bill O’Reilly ousted from Fox News in spring 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations. It had also been deployed against Hannity earlier in 2017 for his coverage of both the murder of Seth Rich and the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, spurring advertisers from Cadillac to Casper to distance themselves from him. With Hannity’s Roy Moore comments, Media Matters saw a new opportunity to turn up the pressure on the controversial host.
Enter Dollar Shave Club, the online razor and bath products company, until then known primarily for its companionable, millennial-friendly image (enhanced by its goofy ads) and its $1 billion acquisition by Unilever in 2016. The company had been advertising with Hannity, spending part of its $34 million annual commercial budget to feature the brand on both his hourlong Fox News primetime show, Hannity, and his three-hour radio program, The Sean Hannity Show, which is syndicated by Premiere Networks. When a Media Matters activist reached out on Twitter to question the company about its ads, Dollar Shave Club felt compelled to distance itself from Hannity. “We do not condone any illegal or unethical behavior. We’ve ceased advertising with Sean Hannity and continue to review where we advertise,” it replied in a terse Tweet.
With that statement, Dollar Shave Club joined the growing ranks of companies that, in the U.S.’s polarized political climate, have taken a moral stance and backed up their words with ad dollars. The company received a wave of adoration on social media as a result. “Way to step up, Dollar Shave Club,” tweeted the politically active actor Bob Clendenin. “Integrity always is a great business model!!!,” posted another Twitter user. The company’s post received 226 replies, and was retweeted and liked nearly 4,000 times.
In the six days after Hannity’s comments about Roy Moore, at least 17 other advertisers either cut ties or distanced themselves from his programs. Four weeks later, Moore lost the election; the social media outrage train chugged on to other destinations. And Dollar Shave Club? You may not have noticed: It went right back to advertising on Sean Hannity’s radio show.
“I gotta tell you, their new body wash is amazing,” Hannity told radio listeners on September 24 this year. “That’s how I get ready, that’s how everyone on my team gets ready. We kind of all smell alike in the morning, to be honest.” This was at least the 57th time he’d spoken on-air about Dollar Shave Club since January, according to an analysis by 360 Media Watch, a Brooklyn-based media monitoring firm. In addition to these radio plugs, which can last around a minute and sometimes involve an abrupt transition from Hannity’s political commentary to discussion of his grooming habits, Dollar Shave Club also ran produced radio ads during The Sean Hannity Show show at least 51 times this year, according to Market Track, a media monitoring firm based in Chicago.
A spokesperson for Dollar Shave Club declined to comment on the record. However, speaking at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Direct Brands summit in October, Katie Jokipii, the company’s senior manager of acquisition and mass media, told an audience that Dollar Shave Club’s advertising decisions were primarily driven by where they saw results—not by the accompanying content. “In terms of choosing personalities [to advertise with], a lot of it is based on proven performance,” she said. “Performance is always going to be part of our bread and butter. We’ll be held to this bottom-line metric.” When asked afterward about the company’s decision to return to Hannity specifically, Jokipii declined to go into detail. “Overall, we have a very rigorous evaluation process on our end, and politics is a part of that,” she said.
Dollar Shave Club isn’t the only advertiser to rinse and repeat its relationship with Hannity. Of 26 brands that publicly distanced themselves from the Fox News host throughout 2017, ads for at least six have since run during either Hannity or his radio program. Spots for Office Depot, which stated on Twitter last November that it was not advertising on Hannity, have run at least 130 times on the cable news show in the months since, according to an analysis by media tracker iSpot.tv. Commercials for The Society for Human Resource Management, a professional organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, have aired on Hannity at least 39 times since it distanced itself from the Fox News host last fall. Cars.com was back on Hannity’s television show again three weeks after it said it had pulled its ads; its spots have run during the show at least 15 times. Cadillac ads have run four times on Hannity since its public disavowal of the host in September 2017. E*Trade had one ad run after its renunciation.
Office Depot, Cadillac, Cars.com, and E*Trade did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Society for Human Resources Management acknowledged the Hannity ads, adding that the group advertises on a wide variety of news networks, but stated that SHRM ads “are currently not airing on the Sean Hannity show.”
Advertisers have long been picky about where their ads appear. When a brand purchases time on TV or radio, it (or its media agency) hands the network a set of buying guidelines that describes the brand’s target ad audience, ideal time slots, and the kinds of content it wants to avoid—objectionable subject matter, specific programs, or both. (This is known as a “blacklist” or “do not run” list). Ad sellers accommodate these wishes and make adjustments on the fly, suspending or rescheduling ads to help a brand avoid a controversy or current events.
This once-routine task has become more complicated as activist groups including Media Matters, Sleeping Giants, and the civil rights-oriented Color of Change exert increasing pressure on advertisers to consider where their dollars are going. “Do you support child molesters, @DollarShaveClub? I’ve been a loyal customer of yours for a long time and would hate to change that,” a Twitter user named @goldengateblond wrote on November 9, 2017. Earlier that day, Media Matters had posted an excerpt from that afternoon’s The Sean Hannity Show in which the host had doubted the claims of women against Roy Moore (“It’s he said, she [said],” he concluded). Activists on social media swarmed the companies listed on the Media Matters site as Hannity advertisers. The post by @goldengateblond was retweeted more than 1,400 times and liked by more than 4,000 users.
But outrage can go both ways. When Media Matters President Angelo Carusone tweeted at coffee maker Keurig about its Hannity ads a day later, the company announced on Twitter that it would cease running them. In response, Hannity fans began uploading videos of themselves smashing their coffee machines with the hashtag #boycottkeurig. One video of a man tossing a Keurig from a balcony was eventually viewed over 2 million times. Two days later, Keurig’s CEO, Bob Gamgort, sent a memo to staff apologizing for the tweet and “the appearance of ‘taking sides.'”
Caught amid the political crossfire, some advertisers struggled to articulate a clear response. In the days following the Moore brouhaha, Volvo Car USA tweeted that it had ceased advertising with Hannity, but then deleted the post. It subsequently declined to comment. Realtor.com said it wasn’t advertising with Hannity, then deleted its Twitter post and published a statement on its website saying that it advertises across a range of different networks.
Some brands, though, have become crafters of the exquisitely neutral statement—words that sound decisive, but are noncommittal. “As of Friday, November 10, @SHRM is not running ads on Fox” the Twitter account of the Society for Human Resources management posted at the height of the Roy Moore scandal, without actually saying anything about its future advertising plans. “Thank you for reaching out & expressing your concern,” posted Office Depot, in response to a Twitter message. “We can confirm that we are not advertising on Hannity.” The company didn’t clarify whether this was because the company objected to the show’s content, or simply because Office Depot’s blitz of back-to-school ads had already ended in September. In any case, both SHRM and Office Depot were advertising on Hannity two months later.
“[That] language lets them have it both ways,” Carusone says. “An average person who wants [the company] to remove their ads says, ‘Yay, I guess they’re not running ads anymore!’ The average person who doesn’t want them to remove their ads says, ‘See, those stupid liberals have been lying—they’re not even running any ads!’ [And] both sides claim a weird version of victory.”
Dollar Shave Club never technically went back on its November statement—the company only said it would “continue to review where we advertise,” after all. Still, at least some Twitter activists feel misled. “It [seems] like they just said what they thought people wanted to hear while the spotlight was on them, but as soon as all the eyes turned away . . . they went right back to doing what they were doing,” says Beth Burnett, a novelist and professor based in North Carolina who had lauded the brand last November on Twitter. (“Half tempted to start shaving something on my body just to support this,” she had tweeted from @BethsNewLife).
Of course, sometimes when ads run on blacklisted shows, it’s sloppiness, not cynicism, that’s to blame. It’s up to the programmer’s advertising group to track of all its clients’ do-not-run conditions—and up to the ad buyers to verify that the broadcaster complied with their instructions, a task that typically falls to employees of the brand’s media agency. (Networks typically provide media buyers with overnight reports of where and when their commercials ran, and an affidavit at the end of a scheduled run of ads listing all the air times and dates.) “There’s got to be very firm stewardship,” says Carmen Graf, of Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M, which buys ads on behalf of brands including Southwest Airlines and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
Further complicating matters, some companies don’t have a good handle on where their ads actually run in the first place. Commercials for Leesa Sleep, the mattress seller, aired during Hannity at least 15 times in 2017, according to iSpot.tv. Yet a spokesperson for Leesa said the company never intended to run ads on Hannity or any other politically charged shows in the first place. The company said it had been unaware of the airings until contacted by Fast Company, and subsequently investigated and contacted Fox: “Fox attributed this mistake to human error and refunded us the cost of the placements.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, says he sometimes wonders if such “accidental” airings aren’t actually mistakes, but rather tests to see if anybody is paying attention. “My theory is that lots of times [the advertiser has issued] a soft go,” he says. “Then they can say it’s a mistake if they get called out.” He’s not surprised that brands slink back to Hannity once the spotlight has dimmed. “If the show was helpful at reaching a certain demographic, and [companies] believe they’re not going to suffer for going back,” then they do, he says.
Successful advertiser boycott campaigns require diligence and discipline. Color of Change launched a campaign against Glenn Beck in 2009 in response to Beck’s unfounded claim that President Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” which the group believed was part of a larger narrative of racist fearmongering on Beck’s show. It took two years of public pressure and back-channeling to the advertisers themselves before Fox News finally canceled Beck’s show in June 2011. During that time, Robinson had interns tape and watch the commercials on every episode of the show, so they could reach out to brands immediately when their ads ran.
These days, activist groups can track advertisers digitally, with the help of media monitoring firms. Carusone, of Media Matters, says he now tries to give advertisers the benefit of the doubt. Before calling them out publicly, he compiles lists of each brand’s errant airings and shares them with the company’s media buyers. Then he politely suggests they should get refunds. “Rather than be this ankle biter, I want to tell them, ‘Look, you can make better business decisions,'” Carusone says.
But as the nation lurches from one political drama to the next, Hannity’s ratings have soared. This year, Hannity averaged 3.2 million viewers—a 22% increase from last year, according to Nielsen, making it the most popular cable news program in its time slot. (Dom Rossi, senior vice president of Eastern Ad Sales for Fox News, calls the show “appointment viewing for affluent and engaged consumers.”) Hannity’s rate per thousand viewers, an ad industry metric known as CPMs, has increased slightly from the year before as well, according to Jim Gaither, media group head at The Richards Group. “[Hannity is] not only driving his previous base, he’s also adding more like-minded viewers” says Gaither. The Sean Hannity Show, meanwhile, is now broadcast on 600 affiliate stations, reaching 18 million radio listeners.
In this climate, especially on social media, the persistent focus that leads to lasting change seems to be in short supply. “Yes! As a victim of sexual abuse as a child, I thank you!” tweeted user @iamLucretiaMott to Dollar Shave Club’s disavowal of Hannity last year. When Fast Company followed up with her a year later to get her impressions on the shaving brand, she was less decisive. “Okay, I don’t remember my comment so you will have to refresh my memory,” messaged the user, who now lists her name on Twitter as “Impeach Trump.”
In fall 2018, as the U.S. grappled with three mass shootings, attempted pipe bomb assassinations, the midterm elections, and the ongoing Russia investigation, she already had other things on her mind.