The use of boycotts continues to rise in an extraordinary way. Not only are we seeing more of them, but they are also more likely to involve corporations wishing to make clear that they are in fact taking sides. Call it values or modern-day business savvy, but there’s a definite shift in the accountability environment.
This week, 22 advertisers, including Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Allstate insurance, have pulled their ads from Fox News’ hit TV show, The O’Reilly Factor. This withdrawal was inspired by a New York Times investigation that revealed additional sexual harassment suits filed against host Bill O’Reilly and settled by him or the network.
These allegations came out the same week that President Trump rolled back the Obama-era protections for women workers employed by companies receiving federal contracts, including the ban on anonymous arbitration clauses, which are commonly used to keep sexual harassment or discrimination claims secret.
A 2010 Government Accountability Office investigation showed that companies with rampant violations were being awarded federal contracts. Arbitration clauses are a dangerous but prevalent tactic that prevents women from going public with allegations of harassment, requiring that they settle with company-hired lawyers and refrain from speaking to the press. Fox News frequently relies on arbitration clauses; former anchor Gretchen Carlson famously dodged hers by suing Roger Ailes personally rather than suing the company.
In the past 15 years, five suits against Bill O’Reilly have been settled, for a total of $13 million. That number, while large, is a drop in the bucket compared with the show’s advertising revenue ($446 million from 2014–2016) or even O’Reilly’s salary (about $18 million each year).
O’Reilly posted a statement on his website that defends his reputation, saying, “No one has ever filed a complaint about me with the [21st Century Fox] Human Resources Department, even on the anonymous hotline.” Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter and current political commentator, pointed out that “it’s been well known for a long time that Roger Ailes had financed a unit at Fox entrusted with surveilling its own employees…Maybe you don’t want to call the hotline.”
Fox News has already endured losing its CEO, Roger Ailes, and another executive, Francisco Cortes, in the past year over allegations of predatory sexual behavior. The suits and settlements are becoming a pattern that the company has shown little desire to break.
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It’s painfully obvious that Fox and its partners only respond to public pressure when it hurts the bottom line. The earliest public settlement of a lawsuit against Bill O’Reilly was in 2002, and the network’s popularity has risen significantly since then. Average weekly viewership of The O’Reilly Factor has gone up by nearly a million just in the last year.
“They’ve got somebody who has a license to print money and they’re going to do everything they can to keep him on the air,” said Richard Levick, a Washington-based crisis communications expert.
Jonathan Lovett, a former White House speechwriter and political commentator, said, “The rules changed on these guys. They changed while they were in those jobs. They could get away with this for a long time. All of these stories were out…It’s been out there for years: The $9 million settlement, the transcripts of his abuse, the transcripts where he threatens people…All this stuff has been out there for a really, really long time.” Despite this, Fox News’ popularity has only grown.
Several of the advertisers who made headlines by pulling their advertisements from the show are getting more mileage out of the decision than it may technically merit. GlaxoSmithKline, UNTUCKit, and others have been cautious about giving up such an enormous audience, and have only temporarily suspended their advertisements, and only from O’Reilly’s show.
“We are continually reviewing our advertising to ensure it is conducted in a responsible manner aligned with our values,” said a spokeswoman from pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline. “We have temporarily put a hold on spots running on The O’Reilly Factor while we assess this situation.”
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “It isn’t unusual for a marketer to withdraw its ads amid a controversy,” but “it has been commonplace in the past for marketers to return to a program once the heat of a controversy cools down.” Without continued public pressure, this situation may turn out to have little impact on Fox’s bottom line. It may even have little impact on viewership. As Justin Peters at Slate said,
O’Reilly’s credibility is dependent on exploiting a sense of victimization among his audience. Much of the Fox News demographic is composed of people who feel that they’re under attack by unscrupulous liberals. So when it appears that a host comes under attack by unscrupulous liberals, that serves to reinforce their existing worldview. The first thought isn’t Bill O’Reilly is a liar. It’s The world is out to get Bill O’Reilly.
In recent months and years, consumers have begun to demand more from corporations than simple bottom-line payout; the #DeleteUber campaign is a prime example. With the recent executive order, this kind of campaign may become even more important, as it may be the only way to put public pressure on large companies. The toxic “boys club” culture at places like Fox News is an unacceptable holdout from the misogynistic past, and we can only hope that financial pressure holds out long enough to force a change.— Erin Rubin