It all started as unremarkably as millions of other advertising transactions do, with a brand buying some airtime on a TV network and getting approval for the ads. Then those spots run.
That’s how it began when wedding website brand Zola submitted six different commercials to the Hallmark Channel for the network’s insanely popular holiday season, and all six went into broadcast rotation on December 2nd—until December 12th, when Hallmark emailed Zola to tell the company that it was pulling four of the six ads off the air because they violated the company’s policy of running spots it deemed too controversial.
The move came as a surprise to Zola CMO Mike Chi, because the brand has been running ads on Hallmark featuring same-sex couples since 2017, and this was the first time any were deemed to be “too controversial.”
As Chi explains in an exclusive interview with Fast Company, he wasn’t able to get anyone from Hallmark on the phone, and even getting a further explanation over email proved difficult.
“We’ve run advertisements with same-sex couples on the Hallmark Channel before and have never heard anything about it,” Chi says. “So this was a surprise and a disappointment to us when we heard that they would no longer air these four ads.”
So what changed? An organization called One Million Moms published a petition asking the channel to “please reconsider airing commercials with same-sex couples,” that began to get more attention than Hallmark or its parent company Crown Media was comfortable with. On its site Friday, One Million Moms said that the group had “personally spoken with Crown Media Family Networks CEO Bill Abbott who confirmed Hallmark Channel has pulled the Zola.com commercial, featuring a same-sex couple, from their network. He reported the advertisement aired in error.”
Chi let Hallmark know that he vehemently disagreed with the network’s decision and felt it was necessary to go public with it.
“Not necessarily to promote Zola, but because we felt this decision was wrong and that it warranted a broader discourse than a few terse emails,” says Chi, who also informed Hallmark that the brand would be pulling all of its ads from the network.
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) December 15, 2019
The outpouring of support for Zola—and criticism aimed at Hallmark—was swift and massive, with such celebrities as Ellen Degeneres and William Shatner calling on Hallmark to smarten up, while Netflix got in on it, too. Saturday Night Live spoofed the Hallmark Christmas movie formula, with a nod to this latest controversy, with Aidy Bryant ending the sketch by saying, “I’m Emily Cringle for Hallmark reminding you to stay straight out there.”
By Sunday, Hallmark announced that it had reversed its decision and issued an apology. Hallmark president and CEO Mike Perry said in a statement that Hallmark Channel’s parent company, Crown Media Family Networks, had “been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused” and that “they believe this was the wrong decision.”
“Our mission is rooted in helping all people connect, celebrate traditions and be inspired to capture meaningful moments in their lives,” said Perry. “Anything that detracts from this purpose is not who we are. We are truly sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused.”
As of Monday morning, however, Zola still hadn’t heard from Hallmark at all.
Chi says he’ll need to be convinced to put Zola’s ads back on its network.
“For us to air on the Hallmark channel, we’d have to have assurances that both our ads and other advertisers’ content wasn’t being censored, and they weren’t trying to narrow the representation of what they’re showing on their commercials,” says Chi. “I think it would take more than a ‘Hey, we’re just going to run these four ads because we got in trouble’ for us to go back on the platform.”
Hallmark is reportedly now working with advocacy group GLAAD “to better represent the L.G.B.T.Q. community across our portfolio of brands,” and Chi says that’s a positive first step. “I’m relieved for them that they seem to have had a reverse in course and [are now] headed in the right direction.”
It was a bad move all around, but even from a pure numbers perspective, it looks ridiculous. One Million Moms has fewer than 5,000 Twitter followers. Now take a look at the #BoycottHallmarkChannel hashtag. It doesn’t take an MBA to see that’s not a good trade-off. Especially when Hallmark Channel’s Christmas movies—despite being overwhelmingly white and straight—appear to have a lot of LGBTQ fans.
This is why it’s essential to have established brand values that can’t be easily shifted by every strong breeze of controversy that swings in across social media. Know who you are, and know what you stand for, and then you’ll have a coherent response to petitions and demands like that from One Million Moms.
The Hallmark Channel is airing 24 new holiday films this year (up from 16 in 2015). Given the scale of media attention, the best thing that Hallmark could do right now is announce that next year it’ll be making one of the love stories in those two-dozen yuletide odes about a same-sex couple. It would answer an ongoing question—and potentially win back some holiday goodwill. If Renault can do it with a car ad, there’s no reason Hallmark shouldn’t be able to step into the real world of 2020.