Limbaugh clash has advertisers recalculating web’s power

Posted March 16, 2012, at 8:07 a.m.

NEW YORK — A day after Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke “a slut,” Washington-based activist Angelo Carusone began contacting advertisers to boycott Limbaugh’s show — over the phone, via e-mail, through Twitter and on Facebook.

Twenty-four hours later, six companies, including Geico and Citrix Systems, dropped their ads on the conservative radio program. After three days, 18 more companies, including AOL and Sears, pulled their marketing. Before the week was out, 27 more, including Netflix and Capital One Financial, cut spots from “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” heard by more than 13 million listeners daily.

“The boycott wouldn’t have had the same effect without Twitter or Facebook,” said Carusone, campaign director for Media Matters for America, which is dedicated to “monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” according to its website. He was careful to add that others across the Internet fueled a campaign that thus far has prompted at least 51 advertisers to cut ties to Limbaugh — in less than eight days.

While threats of boycotts over content are as old as old media, online social outlets have matured, both in use and perception, to the point that major corporations now weigh these campaigns more seriously and with an urgency previously unseen. The collective power of social media to specifically target a group of companies has never been more dramatically on display than in the Limbaugh incident, shaking companies as diverse as ProFlowers and Ford.

Clear Channel Communications’s Premiere Radio Networks, which distributes Limbaugh’s show, said most participants in these online efforts aren’t customers of the businesses they reach out to and are driven by “professional special interest groups.”

“If one is discussing social media activity and success, please note that Rush has more than 1 million ‘likes’ on Facebook and more than 2.3 million unique visitors to his website monthly,” Premiere spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said.

Limbaugh has said dropping advertisers is like “losing a couple of French fries in the container when it’s delivered to you in the drive-through. You don’t even notice it.” But whether the Limbaugh boycott continues or withers, the questions it has raised for companies have taken center stage.

“Should a vocal minority drive major business decisions?” said Scott Monty, the social media director for Ford. “Or are they a minority that is using the online space as a platform when they don’t have purchase power or influence that others have? From a data and analysis perspective, the jury is still out on that.”

Fluke came under attack after testifying before Congress and supporting President Obama’s regulations mandating insurance coverage of contraception. Limbaugh had started to criticize Fluke earlier in the week, for at least three days, according to Carusone, culminating in his remark on Feb. 29: “What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”

Within 24 hours of that statement, Carusone and his colleagues at Media Matters started making calls, beginning with national advertisers. “I knew they would appreciate the heads- up,” he said. “The stakes are higher for them.”

Carusone reached Ford’s Monty through Twitter and sent him a link to an audio recording of Ford’s ads that he uploaded to YouTube.

“We were alarmed that people were hearing Ford ads on the Limbaugh show,” Monty said. “But we wanted to confirm.”

It took at least two days for Ford to corroborate Carusone’s claims. A few days later, Ford asked radio stations syndicating Limbaugh’s shows to make sure its ads weren’t airing.

Monty said Ford never advertised on Limbaugh on purpose and that its ads aired either as a result of a mistake on the part of a radio station or because Ford’s ads aired on a network that included Limbaugh. Many other advertisers, according to Carusone, reacted similarly, saying they didn’t know their marketing messages were on Limbaugh’s show.

Monty, who joined Ford more than three years ago to lead its social media effort, said industries in general no longer consider his title mere window dressing to spruce up a company’s image for the Internet audience. Ford’s quick response to Monty’s information was evidence of how seriously the company considers these online outlets.

“Ford has taken a much more active role in social media,” he said. “We’re listening to customer complaints. But it’s also a way to keep track of what they like, too. We’re much better than we were even a year ago.”

As Carusone was contacting advertisers, Nita Chaudhary began her own, parallel effort. Chaudhary, who co-founded the women’s-rights group UltraViolet last year, said she found Limbaugh advertisers via the Web and through Media Matters’ website, which had started to track who was still airing marketing on the show.

Chaudhary specifically targeted online florist ProFlowers because “this is a company that caters largely to women,” she said. “Nobody should want to have a part of what Rush said. He just called a vast part of their customer bases ‘sluts.’ ”

UltraViolet, which has a full-time staff of two, reached out to its members and collected 100,000 signatures online in two days for a petition asking ProFlowers to boycott the show.

Chaudhary estimates around 30,000 of those followed up with calls to ProFlowers’ customer complaint line, wrote posts to its Facebook page and made comments on Twitter, mentioning the company’s account the weekend after Limbaugh’s Fluke comments.

The ProFlowers Facebook page was riddled with thousands of comments by March 3, two days into Chaudhary’s petition. Four days after Limbaugh controversy erupted, ProFlowers announced it would suspend its advertising on the show, posting on its Facebook page: “Mr. Limbaugh’s recent comments went beyond political discourse to a personal attack and do not reflect our values as a company.”

“It worked,” Chaudhary said.

Jen Carroll, a spokeswoman for ProFlowers, declined to comment.

Even with UltraViolet’s small size, Chaudhary said its “organizing was so effective because people were in an information environment — as they’re Googling it a tweet comes in, or they get an email from us giving them a way to take action. If the information environment had not existed, this would have been a slower campaign.”

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