Decades-worth of sexual harassment allegations finally caught up with Bill O’Reilly this week. Fox News officially dropped the conservative pundit and face of its brand following a bombshell New York Times investigation and the weeks of flashy protests that followed, including a giant rally outside Fox’s New York headquarters and a plane carrying a #DropOReilly banner flying over Manhattan.
But arguably the most powerful force operating against O’Reilly after the news broke was the laser-focused social media uproar. Far from your standard-issue slacktivism, this particular backlash, singularly focused on convincing advertisers to pull their money from The O’Reilly Factor. Left-leaning groups like Color of Change, SumofUs, and Sleeping Giants directed their millions of combined followers to litter the social media pages of brands like Hulu, Jenny Craig, and Trivago with public pleas and criticism, leading some 60 advertisers to withdraw from the show.
The coordinated campaign demonstrated how effectively social media activism can work. But it also came at the right time in the history of technology and media. Thanks to the ad-tech boom, advertisers today have endless options for where to place their messages. They no longer need The O’Reilly Factor to reach O’Reilly’s audience, because ad exchanges can find those very same targets pretty much anywhere else these viewers live online. Combine that reach with the fact that consumers also have more outlets than ever to express their corporate rage, and the decision whether to stick with Fox or skirt a scandal starts to look like an easy one.
“Brands like to take the moral high ground,” says Nicole Carty, a campaign manager for the consumer watchdog group SumofUs. “Moving ads from one place to another is low-risk in the scheme of things.”
That wasn’t always the case. “Fox used to be the place where you needed to go to reach a certain type of conservative audience,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. For a while, that made Robinson’s job tougher. Back when Glenn Beck was still on Fox, the civil rights group launched a similar campaign to oust him from the network, an effort that began years before Beck eventually left the network in 2009. Back then, Twitter was just three years old and Facebook had 360 million active users, compared to the 1.86 billion monthly active users on the platform today.
“It was completely different in terms of the power of Twitter and all of these platforms,” Robinson says. “The speed at which this happened was much quicker and more direct.” It didn’t hurt that O’Reilly and Fox spent $13 million over the years settling lawsuits filed by O’Reilly’s accusers.
Keeping Brands Safe
This new flexibility for advertisers hasn’t always kept them away from controversy. At times, it’s plunged them deeper into it. During the GamerGate controversy, for instance, trolls angry about Gawker’s criticism of gaming culture called on advertisers to distance themselves from the site. A few, including Intel and Adobe, actually did cut ties, despite the fact that in doing so, they were siding with the trolls. More recently, brands have found their ads featured alongside extremist videos on YouTube, leading companies like AT&T to pull their ads from the platform altogether.
This new world requires brands to be hyper-vigilant about where their ads end up, since algorithms, not ad execs, are deciding where to place them. That’s particularly true given that consumers now have social media megaphones to let the world know if and when brands slip up. In hopes of mitigating that risk, JP Morgan recently shrunk the number of websites displaying its ads from 400,000 to just 5,000.
“Over the last year we’ve seen more advertisers and people on the buy side of our business who are concerned about brand safety and looking for ways to enforce it,” says Josh Zeitz, vice president of corporate communications at the programmatic advertising company AppNexus. That’s partly because of the polarized political climate, Zeitz says. But also, he says, “you’re seeing a lot more consumer activism.”
That activism undoubtedly escalated the O’Reilly scandal. Just days after the New York Times published its investigation, Fox renewed the longtime broadcaster’s contract anyway. But a determined network of online activists had already begun whittling away at advertisers’ loyalty, until one by one, they took their business elsewhere.
“Fox is a corporation and corporations listen to their bottom line,” Carty says. “We had to make it economically painful for them before they took action.”
For Fox, it seems, the economic burden became too much to bear. As for O’Reilly, his $25 million severance package should soften the blow.