Advertisers, Rush Limbaugh and the “Shame Cascade”

A Monkey Cage reader writes:

I realize that this might seem like a partisan-motivated question for the generally non-partisan Monkey Cage, but I was wondering if someone could do a post which would attempt to explain (a) why so many companies have chosen to take their advertisements from Limbaugh’s show after the Fluke Fiasco (i.e. why was it a triggering moment?) and/or (b) what processes underlie advertisement withdrawal as it relates to controversial political speech? My completely uneducated guess would be something like a “shame cascade,” where each additional withdrawal provides more incentive for the remaining advertisers to remove their ads, lest they be seen as more ardent supporters of a controversial speaker. Perhaps there’s some game theory application there? Anyway, I think it would be really interesting, especially in light of the recent controversy with Lowe’s & All-American Muslim on TLC, where advertisement withdrawal was—it seems to me—punished rather than praised. Does the difference come from the nature of the controversy or did Lowe’s just get burnt because the rest of the advertisement pack didn’t move with them? (Both?)

Do any readers have thoughts on this?


16 Responses to Advertisers, Rush Limbaugh and the “Shame Cascade”

  1. Janne March 16, 2012 at 8:27 am #

    My guess is it is to avoid looking partisan. Many long-time advertisers may be a bit uncomfortable with things he said, but they feel they can’t pull their ads because they would be the only ones doing it. It would look like a partisan decision to no longer support a broadcast that caters to a particular political current. But once he went over the top and one or two advertisers finally had enough, that gave cover for all the other advertisers that had really wanted to leave for a long time but had felt unable to do so.

  2. Don March 16, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    I’m not aware (offhand) of any work looking at the dynamic or strategic aspects of these decisions, but this paper by Chris Knittel and Victor Stango seems tangentially relevant, as it links an endorser’s reputation to firm value:

  3. Mihai Martoiu Ticu March 16, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    Maybe is it something like Coca Cola, demanding from magazines that their adds are not close to dead bodies.

  4. Eric Hines March 16, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    My game theory is a bit too rusty to figure out an exact model of this, but I think a number of models of cascade effects in networks that could explain this behavior. In most situations, Limbaugh operates in a very small network (his regular audience) that is attractive to certain advertisers. When Limbaugh says something outrageous it resonates with this audience and only occasionally gets a smaller network of liberal activists upset and active. Limbaugh’s comments about Ms. Fluke seem to have broken through the bubble that surrounded these two networks and then cascaded through a much wider one. Advertisers, used to the cover of the bubbles, suddenly had to decide if advertising to rich white men outweighed the damage to their brands among the wider community. I think Lowe’s action with the TLC show demonstrated that corporations can misjudge the size of the networks in play.

  5. Thurman Hart March 16, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    I don’t have a pithy way to say this.

    Start with the idea that advertisers are putting out X amount of money to advertise, with the expectation of getting X+Y return. From a brief review of the public announcements made by a handful of “early drop” companies, it looks like public pressure – i.e., people writing, calling, etc, to complain, was the driving factor. At some point the X+Y return became viewed as X-Y.

    Along with this, there is the “free media” exposure. Companies that dropped were treated to social media promotions by people praising their decision. If the first few had not received any notice for their actions; then I doubt the others would have followed.

    Lowe’s is easily explained by the same math. The decision to pull advertising was based on a 200,000 signature petition threatening their business. They obviously did not expect any kind of backlash. What’s interesting is that Lowe’s refused to reverse its decision despite even greater pressure than was originally put forth. I believe they may have simply figured that any boycott organized against them would not be sufficient to cause any real issues.

  6. Dan March 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    David Frum made a persuasive case that Limbaugh’s show had become less attractive to advertisers before the Fluke deal and the controversy just gave them a good reason to beg off. As I recall, Frum argued that the right wing talk radio audience has been shrinking since 2009. To compensate Limbaugh had been forced to go extreme to keep smaller group of listeners listening longer. This pushed his already high average age up and pushed already high percentage of male listeners up which resulted in a less desirable demographic (unless you are selling overpriced gold or survival seeds). Frum then argued that Limbaugh is one of the few in this field that actually charge for his show and that makes it more expensive for stations and advertisers. Advertisers and stations alike are asked to pay super-premium price for least desirable demographic. There is a new show debuting in the same time slot (Mike Huckabee) which is attracting interest as an alternative because the host is a sane conservative who has more appeal to women and younger listeners.

  7. David Tomlin March 16, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    Is there data showing that Limbaugh’s audience skews affluent?

    I thought the usual liberal knock was that Limbaugh’s audience is low in education.

    Of course, education and income don’t correlate perfectly. It’s possible that the probability that an individual listens to Limbaugh rises with income and falls with education. Again, I’d like to see data.

    • Dan March 16, 2012 at 9:53 pm #
      Male (76%)
      Over Age Age 35 (79%)…with the majority of that being over age 50
      White (95%)
      Has No Kids (76%)…most likely because the kids have grown & moved out
      Earns More Than $60k/Year (67%)…with the majority earning over $100k/year
      Attended College/Grad School (80%)


      • David Tomlin March 17, 2012 at 12:20 am #

        Thank you.

  8. Thomas Brambor March 16, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    There was a huge outcry and subsequent mobilization on (btw, one of the top 50 largest sites in the US). Readers there actively petitioned companies to withdraw their advertising. Surely not the whole story, but good old activism sometimes works. Also, it appears that many advertiser did not actually choose to advertise on the RL show but rather their ads were assigned through ad networks. Once shit hit the fan these companies instructed the ad network to no longer place their ad on the show.

  9. Anon March 17, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    Limbaugh is just one show, there are plenty of other places to make an ad buy that will provide the same bang for your buck without the controversy.

  10. Keith March 17, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    I studied this in a sociology class (I forget what it’s called). You’re right though, it has to do with a group effect. But there’s a bit more to it. Many of these companies have spent years, if not decades, building their brands and they don’t want any negative publicity that could damage it. When marketing execs see other brands racing for the exits, they follow suit.

  11. Jo Procter March 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Maybe you guys need some WOMEN authors? One half our population is WOMEN; that’s why the advertisers are running scared.

    • knight4444 July 29, 2012 at 12:13 am #

      Jo when you read these post doesn’t it boogle your mind on what type of female dates and eventually marries these idiots?

  12. knight4444 July 29, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    I’m a male and reading some of these stupid ass post about why sponsors are leaving limbaugh because of his juvenile, mysogynist comment calling a women a “SLUT” isn’t very surprising to me. limbaugh caters to angry old racist caucasian males over 65! So of course in their fossilized brains they can’t see the big deal! because in their world women are only good for two things, viagra inspired ben gay smelling two minutes of nasty sex and cooking them a meal. That’s why these idiots don’t get it

  13. knight4444 July 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    My bad I meant ”calling a woman a slut” not women