Talk radio has, for decades, made many advertisers a lot of money. Listeners tend to be devoted to their favorite broadcasters. These personalities often act as talent in radio ads – especially for advertisers making a large commitment. With stars doing the shilling, outcomes have at times been phenomenal.
Some of the most popular radio personalities broadcast outrageous stuff. It's why they're popular. This presents a chronic dilemma for advertisers who love earning multiple dollars for each one spent on radio but have zero interest in courting controversy.
This week, Rush Limbaugh took advertisers on a wild ride after calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut." Instantly, The Rush Limbaugh Show became way more than another media buy. Rush (and his behavior) suddenly began dominating the brands that have supported his broadcasts. After making comments considered highly offensive by almost every reasonable adult, this brand "makeover" was the last thing advertisers wanted.
Sponsors began quitting the Limbaugh show. Many are likely to also turn away from talk radio and even the entire medium. I suggest they stop. And think.
Advertisers who believe in separating church and state (keeping advertising from meddling in content) are correct. But companies shouldn't throw money at broadcasters they don't respect, who could seriously damage their brand.
Because there's another key consideration: Doing what's right. Not chasing every last buck. Or doing what interest groups push you to do. In fact, as we recently saw with Lowe's, which succumbed to pressure from a hate group and paid a steep price, and J.C. Penney, which went the opposite route with Ellen DeGeneres and received priceless publicity, the optimal answer isn't to simply oil the squeakiest wheel.
Chances are, you'd never advertise on a Ku Klux Klan show, even if you knew it would be your most profitable buy. Not simply because you'd consider it brand-inappropriate from the get-go and fear a negative backlash. But because supporting them would be, in your opinion, wrong.
Corporations are run by people who can base decisions strictly on short-term profits – or choose to be good citizens. It's not enough to say, "Our audience spans the political spectrum, so we'll advertise on media attractive to the far right, regardless of content."
Forget political affiliation. If you're convinced a broadcaster misinforms – or worse – you have the power to rule him or her out. I'm not referring to those who simply perform controversial stunts or aren't in line with your political views. I'm speaking of personalities who spread disinformation, misogyny, or bigotry. Paying them doesn't signal impartiality – it feeds them oxygen.
It's a copout to claim it's all in the eye of the beholder. You don't have to check your integrity at the door when representing stakeholder interests. In fact, if we learned anything this week, it's that advertisers who consistently do the right thing are less likely to encounter the sort of public relations nightmare Limbaugh's advertisers are enduring.