When NBC News announced earlier this year that it lured Megyn Kelly from Fox News Channel, it was counting on the star anchor to draw attention. She’s delivering — though perhaps not in the way executives had hoped.
The chief marketing officer of JPMorgan Chase, Kristin Lemkau, tweeted Monday night that she was “repulsed” by a report scheduled to run this weekend on “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” in which the anchor is slated to interview Alex Jones, a self-styled provocateur who is known for spreading dubious theories about national events. NBC News teased the segment this past weekend during the second broadcast of Kelly’s newsmagazine, which launched earlier in June. A person familiar with the matter confirmed a Monday report in the Wall Street Journal saying JPMorgan requested that any digital ads or local TV ads that could appear adjacent to the next “Sunday Night” broadcast be removed. It remained unclear whether the financial-services company was pulling its ads from NBC properties or simply “re-expressing” an advertising schedule so that commercials would run at different times or alongside different programming.
NBCUniversal and JPMorgan did not make executives available for comment. NBC News declined to comment on the scheduled Jones segment.
The big bank’s saber-rattling around Kelly’s program is the latest example of the new dilemma many advertisers face in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which has polarized America’s consumer base. “Advertisers have always prided themselves on their grasp of consumer research and their understanding of popular culture, but the current socio-political environment often has them stumped,” said Kelly O’Keefe, a professor of creative brand management at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Running a national ad campaign costs millions of dollars and lately, getting it right feels like steering a straight course through an asteroid field. There are more touchy issues and the population is more on edge. Watch for more missteps, pulled ads, and social-media snafus in the year to come.”
Marketers ranging from USAA, Mercedes-Benz, and Hyundai to T. Rowe Price and Delta Air Lines have come under pressure for supporting Fox News Channel programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity,” both of which have come under scrutiny in recent weeks, or, more recently, a revival of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” produced by New York’s Public Theater. When USAA announced its intention to remove its commercials from “Hannity,” conservative advocacy groups urged it to pull commercials from MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.” Eventually, USAA returned its commercials to its regular rotation.
Kelly has on Twitter defended the decision to feature Jones in a “Sunday Night” segment. “Our job is to shine a light,” Kelly said on Twitter after being called out for giving the host a forum on mainstream TV. She called the interview a “riveting exchange.” Jones has in the past suggested a horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 was a hoax and promulgated other conspiracy theories without much solid evidence to back them up.
Kelly isn’t the only famous figure to come under the harsh glare of the social-media spotlight. Bill Maher faced calls for his firing after uttering a racial slur on the June 2 broadcast of his “Real Time” on HBO. Maher apologized for using the word and was challenged on this past weekend’s broadcast by rapper and actor Ice Cube and scholar Michael Eric Dyson. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America said on Sunday that they were pulling some funding of the Public Theater’s schedule after reports surfaced that Caesar was portrayed as looking a lot like President Donald Trump.
Advertisers have always had the ability to pull commercials from media properties that caused them angst or angered their consumers. But they were rarely as public about it as they have been in recent months. Procter & Gamble and other family-focused advertisers have long been known to review TV episodes for sexual content and violence. And they might, over the course of a TV season, ask that commercials not appear alongside a particular episode of a comedy or drama. But they never talked about it beyond conversations held with a TV network or other media outlet. In 2017, advertisers feel they have to soothe a roiled public letting its id and ego out for battle on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere.
Announcing the pulling of a commercial was once reserved for moments of crisis. Advertisers have publicly acknowledged yanking ads in 2007 from MSNBC’s morning broadcasts of radio host Don Imus’ program after he made racist remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, or in 2015 from TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting,” a 2015 reality show that spotlighted the Duggar family after the revelation that the oldest boy in the family had sexually assaulted teenage girls.
Now, the practice is becoming commonplace. Activists often monitor advertiser support of a particular outlet, then throw a spotlight on the sponsors to try to get consumers to demand the cessation of financial support. Sleeping Giants, for example, is a group that uses Twitter to call out advertisers whose commercials appear on the right-wing news site Breitbart. GrabYourWallet is a grassroots campaign that initially focused on trying to get consumers to stop buying products associated with businesses operated by President Trump and his family.
The current controversy surrounding NBC’s “Sunday Night” may not be what Kelly or her producers had anticipated. “This is going to have big interviews and investigations, all with some heart and humility,” Kelly told Variety late last month in an interview. NBC had pitched the program to advertisers as something that would contain hard-hitting material, but also some life-affirming elements. The network may have to work to demonstrate how this weekend’s broadcast will provide both in equal measure. Meanwhile, Jones took to Twitter Monday night to ask that the segment not be aired.