LIVE ISSUE/ADVERTISER RESPONSIBILITY: Should advertisers avoid pandering to prejudice? - Ellen is the latest TV show advertisers have picked to boycott

This week all hell broke loose across the Pond. American network television broadcast a special episode of Ellen, the US sitcom imported into Britain by Channel 4, in which the central character ended months of viewer uncertainty by revealing she was gay.

This week all hell broke loose across the Pond. American network

television broadcast a special episode of Ellen, the US sitcom imported

into Britain by Channel 4, in which the central character ended months

of viewer uncertainty by revealing she was gay.



Being the US equivalent of, say, Coronation Street’s Rita coming out, or

poor Joe in EastEnders confessing that he swings both ways, the US press

has had a field-day over the past few weeks.



Journalists have been pouring forth all forms of invective on the rights

and wrongs of role-model homosexuality, making snide comments about

Ellen’s ’all-pants wardrobe’ and querying whether America is ready or

not.



But behind the scenes something rather more sinister has been going on.

Certain advertisers, which have traditionally bought regular slots in

the sitcom, have boycotted the episode which was screened on 30

April.



Reports suggest that Chrysler, the car giant, cancelled its advertising

from the show, as did J.C. Penney, the clothes retailer, and Wendy’s

Burgers.



McDonald’s, which is ranked as Ellen’s fifth-largest advertiser, was

also said to have backed out. Chrysler justified its move by issuing a

statement claiming that it ’didn’t want to be part of a polarising

issue’.



When pushed, a spokesman for Touchstone TV, the Walt Disney subsidiary

which makes Ellen, confirmed that ’a few advertisers had pulled out’ but

he refused to surrender any further detail.



This week McDonald’s faced another potential embarrassment in the US

when results from a 30-page study conducted by its agency, Leo Burnett,

revealed the fast-food chain has ’traditionally avoided homosexual

content when possible’ because it is a ’hot topic’ among family values

pressure groups. The report recommends that parameters be set to ensure

McDonald’s ’continues to appear in a suitable environment’.



This begs the question of whether advertisers have a moral

responsibility not to pander to such prejudice. Is it enough for them to

cite such trumped-up excuses that their target audience would be

alienated by association with issues such as homosexuality? Who, for

example could forget Guinness’s famous veto of its ’gay kiss’ commercial

which the drinks giant feared would offend laddish drinkers?



Jaspar Shelbourne, the executive creative director of J. Walter

Thompson, believes such decisions should be based alone on business

criteria. ’This is a very difficult subject and it’s all too easy to say

that advertisers should have a moral responsibility, but it is a

question of priorities.



First and foremost, they have a responsibility to their brand, their

growth, their bottom line and their shareholders. It’s about corporate

survival,’ he says.



That said, he believes most clients are demonstrating increasing

sensitivity to potentially controversial issues these days.



Yet some remain apparently insensitive. An alarming case of apparent

advertiser fascism took place in the supposedly liberal UK market last

year, when Heineken hit the headlines for axing its advertiser-supplied

programming, the late-night Channel 4 strand, Hotel Babylon. A leaked

fax revealed that Heineken believed the Dani Behr-fronted show featured

too many ’negroes’ in the studio audience, which supposedly was not

representative of the brewer’s core market.



But Sholto Douglas-Home, the head of advertising at BT’s personal

communications division, comments: ’It is not an advertiser’s role to be

moral and worthy and supportive of such issues. It’s just important to

be sensitive and cautious and not offend, even though I would obviously

argue that lesbianism is not ’offensive’.’ Paul Woolmington, the

worldwide media director for Ammirati Puris Lintas, who is based in New

York and witnessed the Ellen controversy, says: ’Clients and big

corporations are inherently conservative about such issues because they

do not want to be seen to be supporting them overtly. ’



There may be another, less worthy, reason behind Ellen’s lesbian

storyline.



It performs reasonably well in the US, but it is not top rating - hence

the ’out of the closet’ episode was subjected to the PR might of ABC

television.



The network busily secured endless TV footage, numerous newspaper column

inches and even the front cover of Time magazine in a bid to raise

Ellen’s profile and boost audiences. And accordingly, ABC hiked its

rates 20 per cent higher than usual for those advertisers wishing to

book.



’This has been blown out of all proportion,’ Woolmington says. ’The

reality is that on any given night in New York, which has 75 different

TV channels, there are several topics that are going to be

controversial. In this particular case, advertiser sensitivity is

unfounded - it’s a normal subject that is treated sensitively. It is the

hype that has created the notoriety and caused the nervousness.’



Whether such ’nervousness’ will apply in the UK remains to be seen.

Ellen is not running here but, as the Touchstone TV spokesman points

out, despite certain advertisers walking, the show in the US was still

’fully sponsored’.



Where this broad-minded programming lost revenue through client caution,

it seemed to gain through a bolder brigade of advertisers keen to

benefit from the episode’s notoriety and no doubt highly inflated

ratings. Controversy, it seems, this time paid off.