What advertisers said (and didn’t say) about the now radioactive “The O’Reilly Factor”

Image: CNN

According to The New York Times, five women have accused Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment or similar behavior and received $13 million in settlements. Some “O’Reilly Factor” advertisers have pulled their advertising; others haven’t. But what these advertisers share is their mealy-mouthed, platitudinous statements. Here’s what they are actually thinking — and how they should permanently solve the problem of radioactive content.

Hyundai and Mercedes cite “disturbing” allegations and pull their ads

CNN contacted the “O’Reilly Factor” advertisers and asked for comment. Hyundai and Mercedes made statements indicating that will no longer advertise on the program. Both used nearly identical language about the accusations, calling them “disturbing allegations” and then gingerly embracing diversity and inclusion. (In all of the quotes below, I’ve put the platitudes in bold.)

Here’s what Hyundai said:

Hyundai currently has no advertising running on ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’ We had upcoming advertising spots on the show but are reallocating them due to the recent and disturbing allegations. As a company we seek to partner with companies and programming that share our values of inclusion and diversity. We will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation as we plan future advertising decisions.

This is circumspect. Hyundai endorses inclusion and diversity (who’s against that?) but avoids any definitive statement that would indicate a policy.

Here is the statement from the Mercedes-Benz spokesperson Donna Boland:

We had advertising running on ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ (we run on most major cable news shows) and it has been reassigned [to other Fox News shows] in the midst of this controversy. The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.

At the time that Roger Ailes resigned as CEO of Fox News last July in the wake of sexual harassment charges, the “importance of women” apparently wasn’t a key factor for Mercedes. But now that on-air host O’Reilly faces accusations, Mercedes doesn’t want to annoy women buyers. This policy will satisfy those rare buyers who feel it’s ok for the network head to harass women, but not for the on-air host to do so.

Lexus and Jenny Craig will keep advertising and equivocating

Hyundai and Mercedes actually took action. Dozens of advertisers didn’t. For example, here’s what Lexus said:

The Lexus ads appearing on the O’Reilly Factor are part of a wide ranging media package, with ads appearing on a variety of cable television programs. We take our duties as a responsible advertiser seriously, and seek to partner with organizations who share our company culture and philosophy of respect for all people. We will continue to monitor the situation and will take any appropriate action through our media buying partners.


While the platitudes here are nearly identical to Hyundai’s, Lexus isn’t pulling ads (yet).

Here’s what Jenny Craig (whose customers are primarily women) had to say:

[Jenny Craig] condemns any and all forms of sexual harassment, [but] as a matter of corporate policy, we do not publicly comment on our advertising strategy. . . .  [W]e are constantly evaluating our media buys to maximize the efficiency of our corporate investment and effectively reach our target audience.

What clarity and honesty would look like — and why they’re not possible

The problem here is what you can’t say. These companies want to avoid boycotts, but the problem with boycotts is that there’s no easy place to draw the line. Advertising buys happen today through an automated machine that has no idea what the content is or what radioactive elements it might include.

Let’s indulge in a fantasy, though, and imagine what these advertiser statements might look like if they were truthful. Here are three possible statements an advertiser could make:

  1. Earnest and correct: We will never advertise on a program or media site accused of wrongdoing, discrimination, or harassment. As a result, our advertising buyers will spend 80% of their time determining what sites to avoid on a case-by-case basis, and we’ll waste a lot of money second-guessing while our competitors use efficient, automated ad-placement systems.
  2. Controversy-averse: We prefer to place our ads based solely on audience size, makeup, and price. Every once in a while, though, a controversy arises that’s so prominent that we can’t avoid it. In those unusual situations we will pull our ads and quote platitudes about women, discrimination, and diversity, but we’d like to keep those interruptions to a minimum.
  3. Machine tools: We use automated tools for ad buying. We ignore content and pay attention only to audiences. We cannot disrupt this efficient buying machine, although we can make self-serving statements about our commitment to the right kind of corporate values.

From a business perspective, no one can be earnest and correct. And no one has the honesty to admit they are controversy-averse or subservient to a machine. That’s why the advertisers express platitudes instead.

A startup opportunity — measuring media radioactivity

Automated ad-buying tools now place online ads with real-time auctions, so media companies can reach the best individual prospects at the best price. Buying is not real-time automated in TV yet, but buyers do place ads based on algorithms.

For any given program or site, the algorithms know the makeup of the audience (age, income, gender) and, in many cases, propensity to buy. But what about the content? This is not just a problem with Breitbart.com and Fox News. Google’s YouTube faces similar problems of placing ads next to offensive videos that are hard to identify algorithmically.

Here’s the solution: A startup needs to start identifying radioactive content in real-time. It will monitor who’s accused of harassment, who’s a Nazi, who’s a terrorist, and who’s inappropriately suggestive. It will tap the wisdom of the crowd; there are certainly thousands of people who would be willing to identify problematic content and categorize what’s wrong with it. (Most of them appear to be posting on my Facebook feed.)

Ad-buying algorithms can then determine if — and in what ways — content is radioactive. Then advertisers can either avoid it or seek it out (perhaps the Koch Brothers would like to get less expensive ad buys on sites and pages that other advertisers are avoiding). Then advertisers will be happy, because they can go back to their automated ways without having to treat each new scandal as an expensive and controversial special case.

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