In Defense - No, In Celebration - of Advertiser Boycotts

Every time citizens use social media to organize advertiser boycotts against hate speech, assault and hypocrisy on the Right, a group of pundits on the Very Serious Business (TM) media get queasy. In light of the advertiser boycott against Tucker Carlson, Politico’s Jack Shafer seems to represent the views of many media figures. Shafer resurfaced his column from April of 2017 protesting a similar advertiser boycott effort against Bill O’Reilly.

Many liberal pundits - including the Left’s favorite statistician Nate Silver - have joined the chorus, with Silver lamenting that advertiser boycotts will lead to only views “milquetoast both-sidesism with a pro-corporate bent” being allowed on media channels.

Media channels are increasingly dependent on advertisers, and I can understand their fear of being targeted themselves for a boycott, especially for privileged white men who are afraid they may not always watch their public words (but that someone else will watch it for them). Nevertheless, advertiser boycotts work, and the arguments Shafer and Silver make are bunk.

The elite class make the following arguments against advertiser boycotts: advertisers should not be used to police content, that its broad application and success can reduce diversity of viewpoints in the media and that it often doesn’t work since the same networks still gets the money (many of O’Reilly’s, and now Carlson’s, advertisers are moving their ads to other Fox shows).

Let’s debunk.

Policing Content and Diversity in the Media

The problem often with those trying to give us a “historical” viewpoint is that history seems to begin at a very convenient place for them. Shafer argued in his O’Reilly defense that long ago, advertisers called the shots on the content of shows they advertised on and the talent those shows used, and that was not a good thing for America. Indeed it wasn’t.

But Shafer and his defenders forget that the history of the press is far longer than that. From the invention of the printing press up until the rather recent 20th century advent of advertiser-funded press (that has morphed into today’s ad-dependent internet, which mind you, TPV is a part of), newspapers used to be sold for a price to those who read them. For a couple of centuries, the news was funded by those who consumed it.

That is not to say there weren’t undue influence on the press back then. But advertiser-funding did not usher in diversity in media, and I suspect advertiser boycotts against select voices defending American Nazis will not make it disappear.

There are a ton of other shows on Fox with radical right wing viewpoints, and Carlson is not being targeted for having a conservative, or even controversial, policy viewpoint. He is being targeted for his aghast disregard for human dignity.

Anyone can be a target!

Needless to say, the pundits are wrong again. As I said in my response to Silver, the advertiser boycotts succeed - Fox canceled Bill O’Reilly from “The Factor” the same month Politico published Shafer’s his column - is not because advertisers are being used to police speech. After all, as noted above, they are not.

The reason the boycotts succeed is because advertisers are businesses that ultimately care about the bottom line. Hillary Clinton won counties that produce two-thirds of the US GDP, while Trump counties account for only a third. Trump’s actual fanbase that supports the kind of hate speech Tucker Carlson spews produces an even thinner slice of our economic output. This means that angering moderate and liberal consumers is far more treacherous for business than being an annoyance for the radical Right. The Trump-Tucker fan club simply incapable of producing much of an economic threat to advertisers.

So while anyone can technically be a target, the odds of a successful boycott are not good unless it is a protest against dehumanizing our fellow human beings.

But Fox still keeps the money!

If this is in fact the case, the argument that advertiser boycotts lead to more than just punishing individual offenders and muzzle speech of others is moot. Sometimes the mainstream press makes it easy to take down its own arguments.

Let’s stop confusing freedom of speech and the freedom of the press with the freedom to have someone else pay for it regardless of the content of that speech or press. Grassroots-led advertiser boycotts are one of the few effective weapons the citizenry has against popularized, insidious hate speech. We should use it more, not less.

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