Rush Limbaugh's misogynistic comments about a Georgetown law student are affecting advertisers more than the usual controversial broadcast statements and may spark a long-term problem for the conservative host, according to journalists who cover radio and advertising.
Veteran radio observers credit the quick exodus of advertisers in recent days to the severity of Limbaugh's sexist rant and the ability of social media to force companies to comment on the controversy. These experts also tell Media Matters many major advertisers generally avoid commentators like Limbaugh, shrinking the pool of possible replacements.
Jim Cooper, executive editor of Adweek, said that Limbaugh's comments were “so offensive” that he could have impaired his ability to attract advertisers in the long term. “He could have a problem with brands being associated with his show. They don't want to have any sort of rub off, to be associated with anyone seen as so bold or obnoxious or cruel to that woman, it is pretty off the charts.”
Cooper also acknowledged that it was surprising for ads to continue being pulled even after Limbaugh's two attempts to address the controversy since Saturday.
“It seems a little bit more extreme because what he said was so extreme,” Cooper said of the advertiser reaction. “I don't think most brands, unless they have a political bias, are going to want to be part of this. It is so offensive to a massive part of his audience. No brand is going to want to be saying, 'sure we are behind his comments.'”
Limbaugh has drawn attention in the past week for his vicious and repeated attacks on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student who recently testified before congressional Democrats about the problems caused when young women lack access to contraception.
The popular conservative radio host unleashed a barrage of critical comments at Fluke last week, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and demanding: “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 29 advertisers had said they would exclude, suspend, or pull their business from Limbaugh's radio show, which is syndicated by Premiere Radio, a division of Clear Channel Communications.
The advertising exodus began Friday with several companies including Quicken Loans withdrawing business, followed by major Limbaugh advertiser Carbonite on Saturday and more than a dozen pulling the plug Monday. Those include the likes of Allstate, Sears, and AOL.
Limbaugh offered a much-criticized “apology” statement online Saturday and apologized again on his program Monday. But the radio host continued to bleed advertisers throughout the day on Tuesday in the face of an Internet campaign waged largely through social media.
“It is surprising that he is losing [so many advertisers] because of all the listeners he has,” said Frank Saxe, managing editor of Inside Radio, which covers the industry. “It is interesting that even after the apologies the advertisers are leaving. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a few more leaving.”
Saxe's publication is also owned by Clear Channel Communications.
Saxe later added, “It is a little surprising seeing some of the advertisers leave given they knew who Rush is. You would think they would support him more. The kind of blowback advertisers are getting through social media, it is a lot easier for people to come back at the advertisers.”
Cooper agreed that the social media pressure likely sped things up, and prevented the firestorm from dying down: “It's really high profile. Not only are the ratings so huge, but this story has blown up on social media, it is all over Twitter and these brands are not stupid, they are monitoring that space, too. If this story had happened 10 years ago, it would not have had the gasoline of social media to push it. The story will not go away.”
Katy Bachman, former radio reporter for MediaWeek and past editor of Radio Business Report, said the controversy might affect Limbaugh “for a while.”
“Advertisers are very sensitive to where their ads are placed,” Bachman said. “This might set him back for a while, the pressure should be put on Premiere and Clear Channel because they are the syndicators and the ones selling the advertising.”
Asked why the ads started being pulled so soon and so quickly, Bachman replied, “They don't want their ads or their products associated with a show like this.”
Several observers pointed to the initial weekend apology as a sign of the early pressure mounting on Limbaugh, noting he rarely takes such actions outside of the on-air program.
“I have never seen a statement issued that fast, Premiere issued it on a Saturday,” said Tom Taylor, news editor of Radio-Info.com, a radio industry news site. “Rush doesn't issue a lot of apologies, and to have it happen on Saturday afternoon tells you it is a bit of an unusual thing. This is something to watch, it changes all the time.”
Robert Unmacht, a 35-year radio industry consultant who also writes for Radio-Info.com, also found the apology timing notable.
“It is [unusual] and his apology has been incredibly weak,” Unmacht said. “This came under the Premiere Network name, Rush rarely does anything under that release. I have to think that means they have been hit really hard with advertising and it has the look that a publicist wrote it. It didn't feel genuine, it came from a group that doesn't usually speak for Rush.”
Limbaugh may have difficulty finding new advertisers to fill the slots of the companies who no longer wish to be associated with him. Several radio industry journalists told us that Limbaugh is among several controversial broadcasters who are already generally avoided by most high-end advertisers.
“There are a lot of 'no-buys' in radio; 'don't put my ad in anything controversial.' There is a lot of that,” said Saxe. “I think a guy like Rush, if you are listening to his show, he is not getting some of the mainstream advertisers.”
Added Bachman: “Most big blue chip advertisers don't advertise on Limbaugh, they tend to avoid anything that is controversial. You will not see the Johnson and Johnsons or the Proctor & Gambles associated with a strong political viewpoint.”
Taylor agreed. “A lot of advertisers just don't want to be around controversial content. There are many times when advertisers put instruction in an ad buy not to buy anything controversial and you never hear about it,” he said.