By Michael M. Grynbaum and Sapna Maheshwari
New York Times News Service
Just weeks ago, “The O’Reilly Factor” was home to at least 30 nationally broadcast commercials each night, with giant sponsors like Mercedes-Benz and Aleve. By last Tuesday, that number had dwindled to 10, mainly small-budget spots for a pain relief cream and a bedding retailer, MyPillow.com .
Days later, Fox News star Bill O’Reilly was out — taking with him a payout of up to $25 million — a strikingly swift fall ushered in by an advertising exodus that rattled the highest reaches of the Fox empire and delivered an unsettling message to corporate America: You’re on notice.
Some staff members expressed frustration that O’Reilly received such a lucrative package after being ousted over sexual harassment allegations.
In an era when outrage can be easily channeled online, major brands are well aware of the risk of revolts from consumers who are increasingly savvy about hitting companies where it hurts. Brands are not waiting to dissociate themselves from thorny issues that might alienate their customers, be it O’Reilly’s behavior or a North Carolina law against transgender bathrooms.
“The allegations are disturbing,” a Mercedes spokeswoman, Donna Boland, said in a blunt statement after the company pulled its “O’Reilly Factor” ads. “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.”
Lost revenue is one matter, and tarnished reputation another. If the financial fallout from the O’Reilly backlash was relatively minor — many advertisers simply shifted their spending to other Fox News programs — it was difficult to ignore the public image of at least 50 major brands withdrawing support from the network’s most popular host.
Companies are “a bit on edge about how they engage and react in this moment,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an online racial justice group that encouraged its million-plus members to protest O’Reilly’s behavior.
“On the one hand, they’re trying to reach a broad audience, and on the other, they’re trying to maintain a loyal consumer base and loyal employees,” he said in an interview. “Placing their brands next to figures or platforms that don’t have to adhere to the same standards their employees do can often lead to problems.”
Numerous social-media-savvy groups are capitalizing on that to potent effect, both to expose where advertisers are placing their ads and to mobilize people into registering their concerns. The online boycott campaign #GrabYourWallet, aimed at brands tied to President Donald Trump, has pressured companies like Nordstrom and T.J. Maxx to stop carrying products connected to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.
Uber, the popular ride-sharing app, came under fire after accusations that it tried to profit from a protest against Donald Trump’s executive order barring refugees and immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States. A trending hashtag, #DeleteUber, prompted thousands of users to dump the app; Uber’s chief executive later stepped down from a position on Trump’s economic advisory council.
In interviews, leaders of the online campaign to topple O’Reilly said they believed that while Fox News management would stand behind its star anchor, the network might be vulnerable to other pressures. Shareholders and the executives at its multinational parent company, Twenty-First Century Fox Inc., could be more attuned to the consequences of a large-scale advertising strike.
“You need to be able to mobilize supporters to mount enough public pressure that they feel they need to respond,” Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal website Media Matters and a veteran of advertiser boycott campaigns, said of Fox News. “You’re actually making a business case that keeping him on is inherently risky.”
Shannon Coulter, a founder of #GrabYourWallet, said consumers — women, in particular — were realizing their own power.
“There’s this growing consciousness that our consumer dollars are basically funding our own oppression in some cases,” Coulter said in an interview. “That we are the customers of companies that are buying advertising that supports workplace environments that support serial sexual harassment.”
She added: “There’s a lot of dots being connected right now between consumers and companies. And the ease of contacting a company through social media is fueling it and adding gasoline to the fire.”
O’Reilly’s downfall started this month, shortly after The New York Times reported he had settled with five women over claims of harassment and inappropriate behavior. O’Reilly has denied the allegations against him.
Even veteran activists were taken aback by how swiftly the company responded.
In the early years of the Obama administration, Color of Change slowly mounted pressure on advertisers to distance themselves from Glenn Beck, then a Fox News provocateur. This time around, the group spent only 21/2 weeks on its anti-O’Reilly effort.
“Our effort around Glenn Beck took two years and hundreds of advertisers,” Robinson said.
He said that many of his members drew a direct connection between O’Reilly’s behavior and that of Trump, who defied allegations of sexual harassment and assault to win the election. The fact that Trump publicly defended O’Reilly, calling him “a good person” during an Oval Office interview, only intensified the activists’ resolve.
“That further inflamed the grass roots, and women in general,” said Letitia James, the New York City public advocate, who organized protests outside Fox News’ Manhattan, New York headquarters and has called for further investigations into the network’s workplace culture.
At the time of his final show on Fox News, O’Reilly was scoring some of his highest Nielsen ratings in years and remained the No. 1 draw on cable news. But the cultural and corporate pressures on his employer won out.
Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research, said Fox News probably recognized that installing a replacement anchor for O’Reilly would not necessarily lead to a giant drop-off in viewers.
And even if advertisers had stuck with O’Reilly, Wieser added, the situation raised other questions. “Is it harder to attract talent at Fox because of O’Reilly’s presence or is it harder to book on-air guests?” he said. “Or is morale so low such that people are unproductive because they feel there’s a risk that’s looming?”
News of O’Reilly’s departure was met with jubilation by some online activist groups, including Sleeping Giants, a popular Twitter account created in November to pressure brands into removing ads that appear on Breitbart News. The anonymously run account had extended its mission this month, urging advertisers to pull sponsorship from O’Reilly’s show.
“Thanks to all of the Giants, the many collaborators and the advertisers who stood up to sexual harassment,” the group wrote in a Twitter post on Wednesday. “You did this.”