Turns out, not all press is good press. When public figures like Rush Limbaugh and Paula Deen recently made media waves with sexist and racist words respectively, it caused many of their advertisers to bail. In the case of Paula Dean, her career fell instantly like an imploded soufflé. So why is Limbaugh still on the air over 6 months after his ordeal while Deen’s TV show got canceled right away? We already know a big part of it is ad revenue. But, why do advertisers tend to jump ship long before the storm has the chance to settle? Why did Deen’s words rock the boat worse than Limbaugh’s? What does the public really think about the brands that are advertising on these shows?
Let’s take a closer look at the two stories. Deen publicly admitted to having said the n-word in the past and apologized profusely saying it was “inappropriate,” “hurtful” and “totally unacceptable.” Rush called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, a “slut,” repeatedly during his show for speaking at a democratic hearing about the need for contraceptives both as birth control and for broader medical reasons. Limbaugh saw Fluke as an advocate for casual sex. All told, he tallied up approximately 70 personal insults directed toward Fluke on his on-air talk show, making it impossible for anyone to argue his remarks were just a fluke. Like Deen, Rush also apologized publicly. Why is Limbaugh still on the air but not Deen?
There are two main theories bouncing around the media that attempt to explain the difference between Limbaugh’s situation and Deen’s situation. First, we are reminded to consider that the two figures have different audiences with different expectations. Limbaugh built a career on being controversial. He speaks to a niche audience of mostly conservative white males that value him because of his bold opinions. Deen’s audience, on the other hand, seeks controversy-free comfort food and southern hospitality. Even a pinch of racism ruins the Paula Deen recipe of sugar and spice and everything nice.
The second theory is that a little sexism will be tolerated, but racism is never okay. In 2011, Gilbert Gottfried was dropped by Aflac as the voice of the duck after he carelessly tweeted jokes about Japan after the tsunami. Gottfried’s public persona is similar Limbaugh’s in the sense that his audience also expects a certain degree of edginess from him, but his tweets crossed the line. Here’s one example, “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, “They’ll be another one floating by any minute now.”
Aflac originally hired Gottfried knowing that tact was not his strong suit. Gottfried is considered to be one of the first to make a joke publicly about 9/11. He quipped that he could not get a direct flight because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” However, Aflac does a high percentage of its business in Japan, making Gottfried’s jokes deal-breakers.
Limbaugh is still on the air, and he is still at risk for loosing advertisers, ratings and potentially the renewal of his show. QuestionPro and qSample teamed up to take a quick poll of the SurveyGIANTS panel to find out what the public thinks of the brands advertising on his show. Only 13% of respondents said that their opinion would be negatively affected if a brand they trusted advertised on The Rush Limbaugh Show. Forty-seven percent said their opinion of the brand would be unchanged, while 32% said their opinion would actually be positively affected. About 8% didn’t know who Rush Limbaugh is.
For the 32% who responded that they look favorably upon a brand continuing to advertise on Limbaugh’s show, it makes you wonder if the fleeing advertisers have got it all wrong. Perhaps the public is more forgiving than advertisers think. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Spouses say hurtful things, but it’s usually not grounds for immediate divorce. From the advertiser’s perspective though, there are plenty more uncontroversial fish in the sea. In business, there isn’t much loyalty, but the public may not be as quick to view Limbaugh and Deen as just tainted brands. Limbaugh and Deen are people who make mistakes, and they are public figures who are expected to lead by example. While the people might not agree with what Limbaugh and Deen said, they might be ready to forgive.
by Stacy Sherwood