If Lowe’s thought all it took to quell the controversy over its decision to withdraw advertising from the TLC series “All-American Muslim” was an explanation, the retail chain was sorely mistaken.
The backlash shows no signs of abating since Friday, when the company issued a statement clarifying that its decision was not prompted by the Florida Family Association, which criticized “Muslim” as “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Instead, Lowe’s cited “multiple sides of the viewer spectrum” as the rationale for its withdrawal.
But that clarification has done nothing to contain a firestorm that has been raging on social media all weekend and threatens to spill over into Lowe’s stores. Protests are being planned everywhere from New Jersey to Colorado. Hashtags like #LowesHatesMuslims are bringing together picketers, as is Lowe’s own Facebook page, where most of the 12,000+ plus comments appending the company’s statement are highly critical. Celebrities from Russell Simmons to Mia Farrow have spoken out against Lowe’s. At least two politicians have done same. A petition is closing in on 10,000 signatures, tweeters are proclaiming eternal devotion to Home Depot, and there’s even an obligatory animated satire.
As common as advertiser withdrawals from controversial TV shows are, this one is playing out quite differently than the predictable course these situations typically follow. By the time this is all over, Lowe’s response to this crisis may end up a textbook case for MBA types to learn what NOT to do.
First, the haste with which companies are pressured to respond to consumer complaints in the era of social media shouldn’t override the need to do some research as to who is doing the complaining. That way Lowe’s could have skipped the embarrassment of sending an e-mail that clearly seems to be appeasing the FFA, which a quick Google search would confirm is identified as an organization with extremist “Islamophobic” views.
But what made the situation worse for Lowe’s was the clarification. While the company might have thought it was extricating its foot from its mouth by marginalizing the FFA as only one voice among a multiplicity of concerns in the debate, such a statement is tantamount to establishing the organization’s prejudicial posturing as a legitimate point of view. That would be like a broadcaster pulling out of a Holocaust-related TV program after taking into account a range of views that included a Holocaust denier.
Lowe’s handling of Muslim-gate is only made worse by the fact that its statement doesn’t identify just what other voices the company is paying attention or what they’re saying. With the exception of groups like FFA who have engaged in a smear campaign targeting “Muslim” since it premiered last month, the prevailing view on the series has been one of high praise for offering a three-dimensional depiction of an ethnic group that is too often demonized by unfortunate stereotypes.
And yet Lowe’s actions here may not be all that surprising given the fault line on which this TLC show has laid its foundation. In post-9/11 America, there’s been a hypersensitivity to the mainstreaming of Muslim culture from headlline-grabbing controversies like the Ground Zero mosque to absurd trifles like a 2008 commercial Dunkin Donuts shelved because its pitchwoman, talk-show host Rachael Ray, is seen wearing a scarf that looks like an Arab kaffiyeh. A cottage industry of right-wing commentators have been dining out on this trend for years, exploiting the fears of a public traumatized by terrorism.
In all probability, there isn’t a Christian cabal running Lowe’s intolerant of other religions, nor has its execs done some cold calculation that racists make up a bigger portion of its customer base than Muslims. The reality is that corporations want to keep their precious brands far away from any programming with the slightest hint of controversy, and Lowe’s backed out in such ham-handed fashion that its exit will end up doing far more damage than had it just remained as an advertiser.
What’s even more unfortunate for Lowe’s is that it likely isn’t the only company to withdraw its advertising from Lowe’s. The FFA targeted dozens of advertisers with its pressure tactics; the only reason Lowe’s seems to have been singled out was that it bothered to respond to the organization’s emails. For its part, TLC has said the series continues to garner healthy advertiser support.
Lowe’s has stayed silent on “Muslim” since Saturday, and after all that’s transpired, keeping quiet may be its best option. If the company has proven anything since this PR debacle began is that its every utterance only seems to dig itself a deeper hole.