As much as baseball and apple pie, free speech and the free market symbolize America for many. Both are at the center of the ongoing argument around a boycotting campaign calling for advertisers to ditch Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson.
The activist group Sleeping Giants, for example, is encouraging people to email advertisers asking, “Why are you putting your marketing budget towards supporting Tucker Carlson’s white nationalist message on national TV every night?”
Seems pretty straightforward.
However, some prominent media observers like Jack Shafer and Nate Silver oppose any boycott of Tucker Carlson advertisers, on the grounds that, as Shafer wrote on Politico, it ends up giving “corporate advertisers … the power to decide what ideas should be discussed and how they should be discussed.” Silver tweeted this week, “The logical endpoint of deeming advertisers to have endorsed the political messages of the shows they run ads on is that only milquetoast both-sidesism with a pro-corporate bent will be advertising-supported, if any political content is ad-supported at all.”
When I talk to marketers and company executives about why they decide to create strong brand work, the first answer is always to attract new customers, excite existing ones, and ultimately sell more products. But a close second is that every company is made up of people–50 or 50,000 employees, potential employees, business partners, and stakeholders. Creating compelling, strong advertising for many is a point of pride. Something that says, “This is who we are, and who we aim to be.”
Companies are not only accountable to their customers but also to those inside their own four walls. This is also a primary reason these same execs give about why their brand has taken a stand on one issue or another–gun control, immigration, climate change, equal rights. It’s not meant to be a tagline but rather a reflection of the voices and values within the company. As Wanda Pogue, chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi New York, told Fast Company last year regarding brands in the age of Trump, “It is essential that companies remain true to their inherent values and do not come across as opportunistic. Their position needs to be genuine to their DNA.” That includes where their ads run.
Why would any corporation that puts that much thought into their advertising want that work to appear alongside Tucker Carlson’s immigrant fear-mongering and racial dog whistles? The premise of the anti-boycott argument is that what Tucker Carlson does is journalism and giving advertisers the right to control it is akin to The New York Times asking Coca-Cola to approve the front-page. What this straw man fails to acknowledge is, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie points out, “the objection depends on classifying racism/white nationalism/white supremacy as just another category of political speech rather than something qualitatively different, and more dangerous, given our history.”
Silver traces his opposition to the boycott of boycotts of the past, tweeting, “In fact, I am gay, and I’m just old enough (40) to remember when conservative groups urged boycotts of advertisers and networks who were seen as promoting LGBTQ or other ‘nontraditional’ lifestyles.” A false equivalency between tolerance and non-tolerance. Boycotts based on LGBTQ issues are just as intolerant as a TV personality spewing anti-immigrant bile.
This isn’t, as Shafer argues, a new brand of McCarthyism. That was the government, while these are companies, global and domestic, that are able to choose where and when to spend their massive advertising budgets and consider the opinions of employees, investors, and consumers in doing so.
Brands are good at espousing values: Capital One says on its website that it has a “commitment to build and foster a diverse and inclusive culture where every voice is heard and matters.” Yet its advertising runs alongside a man who claims immigrants are making the U.S. “dirtier.” To decline to advertise on Carlson’s show would theoretically betray that commitment to every voice being heard, but it’s hard to read that values statement as meaning that Carlson’s is the sort of voice that’s going to achieve the “diverse and inclusive culture” part of that mission.
Corporations are scrutinized for the politicians they donate to, causes they lobby, working conditions they provide, and materials they source. So why should their advertising budgets be any different? It is ludicrous to think marketing–the very face and voice of any brand–would be exempt from this consideration. A free press and a free market must live together. Commentators can write, print, broadcast opinions of any kind. What they can’t do is expect brands to blindly pay for it.
UPDATE: Capital One has stopped running ads during Carlson’s show and, according to a company spokesperson, “have no plans to restart them.”