Advertisers Leaving Limbaugh: Are Business Boycotts good Business?

Mar 6, 2012 by

As everyone with a radio, tv, computer, newspaper and any other form of communication know, Rush Limbaugh hurled several insulting comments regarding a female activist. The uproar was (and remains)  great.  The hand wringing even greater.  The biggest action however, was reserved for the online world. There were organized boycotts of Limbaugh’s advertisers by some of the leading left leaning blogs, such as amongst others.  

I am not going to weigh in on whether or not Limbaugh’s apology is sufficient (that is covered quite extensively by the very serious pundits in the hand wringing, finger wagging, high gravitas major and not so major media outlets, blogs, etc)  

The question that I am asking of the advertisers leaving the program is as follows:  Is leaving the Rush Limbaugh program good for your business ? 

Lets starts with one key assumption:  Clearly, the show most likely generated a profit for all the advertisers on the show- otherwise why advertise on the Rush Limbaugh show ? It’s not like there is some added perk, such as sports advertising, where being able to take a client to a game, player access etc., .. Clearly, the Limbaugh show was generating direct profits for these companies and it made good business for them to be on the show because of those profits.  

Another key assumption:  Businesses are in business to make money ( at least they should be- otherwise they can certainly register as a nonprofit) . Businesses advertise because they want to make money. Even the “do no evil” types of companies are all in business to make money.  I have yet to see any business – even the warmest, fuzziest, do good company, donate all their profits, or even a substantial amount of their profits to charity. So it’s quite simple: Business want to make money and business decisions are based on one simple calculation: will this action make my company more money ?  

So therefore one can assume, that the key reason that advertisers left the Limbaugh show was because those companies that left felt that: leaving the show would offer them more profits, and continuing to be an advertiser on the show would offer them less in profits.

So the question now is: was it a good business decision to pull the advertising on the Limbaugh show. The short answer is : nobody knows. This is why:  I think it is widely understood that the key reason that the advertisers pulled their show was the organized uproar among the various company interaction points regarding the continued advertising on the show: Company blogs, websites, facebook pages, twitter feeds,  emails were all flooded with anti Rush sentiment.   

There seems to be no question that there was a clear “anti Rush” leaning amongst all the communications that the many advertisers received. So, I am assuming, that those companies, like   , , and others made a business decision that it made good business sense to pull the plug.  But, this is where I think they possibly could have erred.  

Here is why: In today’s instant world the rule is simple : He who screams loudest gets the most “Facebook likes” or Twitter Followers”.  In the absence of any organized pro Rush “anti boycott”  the “boycott Rush”   message carried the day. ( a “ anti boycott”  never really gets people geared up)  Advertisers got scared, thought they would lose money by being associated with Rush, and they cut ties. Ditto times 7-  advertisers , who had been making a  profit advertising on Rush Limbaugh suddenly thought they would make more money if they continued to advertise. ( I am assuming that they did the right thing and made their decision based on profits) 

I think they likely made a very wrong business decision. Let me illustrate:  If you recall, there was an uproar over Netflix and their newfangled plans, qwikflix  ( oops I mean Qwikster) thousands of customers complained, thousands cancelled. Netflix backed down. Netflix made the right choice . Why is that any different the Rush Boycott ?  Here is why: 

Netflix listened to it’s customers: People who were complaining because they had a personal financial stake in the matter. They would have to pay more for DVDs. Two plans. Very confusing etc. These customers had been influenced by: drum roll….. their own personal pocketbook. Those customers made a business decision which included complaining to Netflix and potentially cancelling their account. It was clear that if Netflix did not act they would in fact lose money. So Netflix did the smart thing. 

But, a business can not confuse “Customers” = those who have a financial stake in an outcome, with “Activists” = those trying to push an agenda and have no financial stake in the outcome.As with any emotionally charged issue, Activists tend to be disproportionately represented in today social media world. They scream the loudest, bang the table the hardest, and email and post the most.  In short,  Activist activity, similar to the activity around the Limbaugh boycott is a moment in time,  flash in the pan mob snapshot.  It probably does not make good business sense to make decisions based on moment in time, based on activism from people that currently have no financial stake in the matter. Sure, the activist say:  we will now support Proflowers more, we will be big time Proflower customers, now that they left the Limbaugh show.

However, the reality is, with the exception of a zealous few, there will be likely  little customers to be had amongst the activists – certainly not the amount of customers that were reached by the Limbaugh show.  By the time next Valentines day rolls around will the money spent by the activist come close to money spent by listeners of Rush- likely not even close.That being said, 

One more thing :  I don’t know if boycotting Limbaugh was a good business choice and I think, no one else knows either.  What I do know is: making decisions based on the loudest screamers of the moment, does not usually bring about good business results.


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