Last week ABC, the network that makes Ellen and other controversial
shows such as NYPD Blue and the priest drama, Nothing Sacred, confirmed
it was refusing to make public the list of advertisers appearing in
breaks in those shows. Ordinarily, such a list is made available to
Advertising Information Services, which checks to see that no obvious
media placement gaffes have been made.
ABC claims it is shielding advertisers from pressures such as the
threatened boycott by a Catholic group which led to as many as six
sponsors pulling out of Nothing Sacred last week.
Tensions have been building for some time. It started with the magazine
world. IBM pulled its dollars 6 million annual advertising budget from
Fortune because of a couple of critical remarks in an otherwise
laudatory profile of its boss. A golfball maker withdrew its advertising
a sports publication claimed a golf tournament was a knocking shop for
The problem has spread to TV. Here too, it was the depiction of a
lesbian lifestyle that appalled the advertisers. When Ellen DeGeneres
confirmed that her character in the hit ABC sitcom, Ellen, was gay, it
precipitated a media feeding frenzy. Special interest groups, such as
the American Family Association and the Catholic League, were up in arms
and advertisers threatened to desert the show in droves.
In the event, the offending episode pulled in all-time record viewing
figures and the threatened boycott wasn’t nearly as painful as
But the problem with introducing any controversial character is that
sooner or later they have to develop further. It’s not enough to
announce they’re gay in a misty-eyed, crowd-pleasing scene. That might
lead to kisses or bedroom scenes or any of those other staples of
everyday life that make advertisers reach for the boycott button. And
that’s the point the dispute has now reached.
The message is crystal clear. Advertising might still be about getting
attention, but advertisers are not prepared to appear in magazines or on
TV shows with the same aim.