The facts on advertiser boycotts against cable news networks

A headline is shown outside Fox News studios on Nov. 28, 2018, in New York. (AP/Lennihan)
A headline is shown outside Fox News studios on Nov. 28, 2018, in New York. (AP/Lennihan)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol on July 15, 2019. (AP/Applewhite)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol on July 15, 2019. (AP/Applewhite)

Amid a feud with Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., suggested that companies should stop advertising on Carlson’s show.

"Fox News is now giving a nightly platform to white supremacist rhetoric," the congresswoman said in a July 10 tweet. "Advertisers should not be underwriting hate speech." 

Her tweet linked to a list of companies that ran ads during Carlson’s July 9 show, when he called Omar "living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country."

Carlson fired back that night. "Ilhan Omar and her allies in Congress immediately demanded that this show be pulled off the air," he said on his show. "They didn’t rebut what we said, any of our points, or even acknowledge them. They just tried to silence us."

Left-leaning activist groups such as Media Matters for America have made a habit of pressuring companies to pull advertisements from Fox News’ popular opinion programs. But the TV network continues to outperform competitors CNN and MSNBC in terms of ratings.

Advertiser boycotts against cable news networks have become a feature of the political messaging war. But when it comes to the goals of their organizers, the results have been mixed.

What’s an advertiser boycott?

Advertiser boycotts are public-pressure campaigns meant to squeeze companies into yanking their ads from a particular TV show. Either the advertisers are boycotting the show or people are boycotting the advertisers, but the ultimate target is the show and its host network.

Media Matters, a nonprofit research group that says it combats "conservative misinformation" in the U.S. media, has led several such campaigns against Fox News.

The group’s president, Angelo Carusone, said his goal is not to drive Fox News out of business, but to change the network’s behavior and hold its hosts accountable for what they say.

"You cause enough financial harm that they, because they’re a business, would wisely say, ‘Wait a minute, this is costing us money and we need to course correct,’" he said.

Carusone said Media Matters has targeted Fox News, including Carlson’s show, not because of individual comments made by the network's personnel, but because it believes the network is "outwardly promoting and profiting off white nationalism, bigotry, extremism, and the business model is to cater exclusively to the far-right."

"My critique is not that I don’t like the one thing that they did, but rather that I think there’s something fundamentally dangerous about their model itself," he said.

He said he wants to see Fox News change those habits and regularly hold talent accountable for controversial comments — as it did when it suspended host Jeanine Pirro in March.

Targeting Fox News

The latest boycotts fueled by Media Matters have targeted Carlson, Pirro and fellow Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. 

Most recently, Media Matters released two batches of audio clips in March of offensive remarks Carlson made as a guest caller on a Tampa-based radio show between 2006 and 2011.

The comments teed off the second advertiser boycott of Carlson’s show — which focuses on challenging Democratic talking points and political correctness — in less than a year. 

Previously, at least 25 advertisers left the show in December 2018 after Carlson said immigrants make the United States "poorer and dirtier and more divided," according to Axios.

An ongoing tally kept by Media Matters counts 39 advertisers that have dropped Carlson’s show, plus two more that dropped before returning.

Pirro saw a similar slide after she criticized Omar for wearing a hijab in March, and she was temporarily suspended before returning to her show.

Advertisers also left Ingraham’s show after she made fun of Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg in March 2018 for getting rejected by a handful of colleges. 

Hogg tweeted out a list of her advertisers and urged a boycott. He renewed his call in June 2018 when Ingraham compared migrant detention centers with "summer camps."

Media Matters claimed Ingraham’s show averaged about 37 ads before Hogg’s first tweet and about 18 in the days after. Politico recorded a similar impact. But Ingraham is still on the air.

So is Hannity, who lost some advertisers at the hands of a Media Matters campaign in 2017. Before that, hosts Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck lost their jobs while facing similar boycotts. 

Is there a financial impact?

Still, the advertiser boycotts don’t seem to have significantly affected Fox News, which makes more money from cable subscribers than ad sales and continues to dominate the TV ratings.

The network’s net advertising revenue has increased each of the last several years — and is projected to continue climbing — according to estimates from S&P Global Market Intelligence that Fox News shared with PolitiFact.

"Fox News just reached an all-time record in advertising revenue in the latest fiscal year, which ended on June 30," the network said in a statement. "Our entire lineup continues to have our full support, and we have seen zero impact on our business."

Carusone said Fox News’ loss of advertisers would have hurt revenues and let other companies negotiate to lower rates for airtime. 

However, the bulk of ads are sold months before airing, so companies with pre-purchased ads might have moved their ads to other time slots instead of removing them entirely. 

That still could have cost Fox News some money, since the network would likely have had to compensate companies that moved ads from shows with big audiences to shows with small audiences by offering extra commercial time. 

But in the long run, experts said advertiser boycotts tend to cause little financial harm and are much better at raising awareness about issues.

"They rarely affect the bottom line of the company being boycotted," said Lawrence Glickman, professor of history at Cornell University and an expert in consumer activism.

"If a program is reaching its audience, advertising money will find it," added Brian Sheehan, professor of advertising at Syracuse University.

It’s even possible that the conduct that’s inspired advertiser boycotts against Fox News could be helping its ratings. Neeru Paharia, professor of business at Georgetown University, said that for many companies, taking extreme political positions can actually increase audience size.

"Fox News may lose some people, but they also gain a lot of people who really like their message," she said. "Their whole identity is based on being polarizing."

Plus, the public "tends to be quick to outrage but also quick to forget," said Chris Allieri, founder of the New York communications firm Mulberry & Astor.

Conservatives do it, too

A few conservative activist groups have made similar pushes for boycotts against personalities on MSNBC and CNN. (MSNBC and CNN did not respond to requests for comment.)

In 2013, a group led by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro targeted Ritz Crackers for advertising during an MSNBC show hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

More recently, the Media Equality Project, a project of the conservative website Media Equalizer, has run campaigns to drum up support for Hannity and other Fox News hosts trying to fend off advertiser boycotts against them.

"We normally intervene when there is an active effort by liberal organizations to remove talk hosts from the airwaves," said project co-founder Brian Maloney.

In 2017, however, the project tried to counteract Media Matters’ efforts and "fight fire with fire" by targeting MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, CNN’s Don Lemon and others with an advertiser boycott campaign called "Stop the Scalpings." Hannity even had Maloney on his show to talk about it.

Another right-leaning website, the Media Research Center, tried to get ads off ABC’s "The View" after co-host Joy Behar called Vice President Mike Pence’s Christian faith a "mental illness," a comment for which she later apologized. (ABC is a broadcast channel.)

Why they’re happening now

Advertiser boycotts are not new, experts said.

They hit fictional TV shows first. Some Christian groups, for example, led boycotts in the 1990s against advertisers of shows that were considered too LGBTQ-friendly or, in the case of ABC’s "Nothing Sacred," unflattering toward Christianity.

Sheehan said calls for advertisers to disassociate from cable TV shows have increased recently because cable news has become more politically fragmented over the last 30 years. 

"Brands taking sides publicly, and demonstrating their political values (liberal or conservative) is increasingly unavoidable," he said, pointing to conservative radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who lost advertisers in 2000 over protests from LGBTQ advocacy groups, as an early example.

Social media has further elevated activists’ ability to directly influence advertisers.

But that cuts two ways. Allieri said that while advertiser boycotts have seemed big, they "have been largely limited to smaller factions of people who are loud on social." A lot of people sit out.

"At the end of the day, folks might just want to retreat from all of the bad and contentious news entirely and flee to Netflix or HBO and catch up on ‘Big Little Lies,’" he said.