Dozens of advertisers have pulled their ads from Rush Limbaugh's radio show. But as The Atlantic Wire's Ellie Reeve found out, some of those advertisers didn't know they were advertising on the show in the first place. Others had already instructed stations not to air their spots during Limbaugh's show. Bob speaks with Reeve and then with Kim Vasey of GroupM who says advertisers not knowing where their ads are running is not uncommon.
BOB GARFIELD: Last week in a quintessential display of his sense of humor and proportion, radio strongman Rush Limbaugh went nutso on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke who’d had the temerity to seek health coverage for birth control pills.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college coed Susan[sic] Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.
BOB GARFIELD: Limbaugh apologized twice for what he characterized as a poor choice of words, but no one was buying, literally. By week’s end, shamed by the uproar in the media, both social and mainstream, more than 40 advertisers had bailed from the program. But before that mass exodus began, blogger Ellie Reeve of theatlanticwire.com phoned advertisers to see what plans they had. And what she found was surprising. Many of the sponsors told her they weren’t sponsors at all, at least not intentionally.
ELLIE REEVE: Netflix offered a really detailed explanation, which was the ad had accidentally been dropped in during the half-hour break, where they read the news and the weather and stuff like that. Amberen, it’s a weight loss supplement, they say that they’re a bulk buyer of ads that they buy remnant ads, and they have no choice over when those air. Goodwill, on the other hand, said that they had bought ads on a sister station of the radio station I listen to, WMAL in D.C. and that the ads had accidentally aired on Rush Limbaugh’s show.
BOB GARFIELD: And what about Geico, which is one of the big broadcast advertisers in the country? You heard one of their ads on his show, right?
ELLIE REEVE: That’s right, Geico said that since 2004 they have made sure not to advertise on Rush’s show. But if you go and, and you google it, off and on, you – there have been these controversies over Geico advertising on the Rush Limbaugh Show. It’s an ongoing problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Would it be fair to say that their explanation did not correspond with your reporting on this issue?
ELLIE REEVE: I will put it this way: If it’s a mistake, it happens a lot!
It’s happened over and over and over.
BOB GARFIELD: What have we learned through this exercise?
ELLIE REEVE: The power of social media. If you look at the Facebook pages of these advertisers, the small ones especially, their pages are filled with angry people, mostly women, saying how could you associate with these kind of comments. So you can understand why they responded so quickly, even after Limbaugh apologized.
BOB GARFIELD: Here’s a question for you: Does this teach you about being careful with your words?
ELLIE REEVE: Yes, especially since I write on a blog very – very fast, and there’s always the temptation to come up with something really catchy as a way to describe somebody. I will not be going with “slut” or “prostitute” that’s for sure.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Probably a very good move. Thank you very much. Ellie.
ELLIE REEVE: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Ellie Reeve blogs for theathlanticwire.com.
If what advertisers told her is true, that they were accidental underwriters of Rush’s rush to judgment, and brands that spend millions of dollars on radio commercials don’t even know what they’re buying, this suggests an obvious follow-up question: Huh?
Yet, Kim Vasey, director of radio ad purchases for the media-buying giant GroupM media, says the denials are quite plausible.
KIM VASEY: Because if you’re buying a program such as a Rush, we know exactly where that spot is running, if we buy program specific. If we’re just buying day part, morning, midday, afternoon across a thousand radio stations around the country, you may lose sight of where that may inadvertently end up.
BOB GARFIELD: I can see how an advertiser would have his spots fall on ears that he hadn’t specifically requested. But I also know that advertisers care deeply about what they call the editorial environment. Advertisers who might advertise, for example, in People Magazine might not want to advertise –
KIM VASEY: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - in Outlaw Biker. Aren’t there advertisers who make clear to their media-buying houses that they don’t want any part of a controversial talk show like Rush Limbaugh’s?
KIM VASEY: Yes, and generally on the traffic instructions that go to the station there will be a space on that page for a – an advertiser to write down all the different types of programs that they do not want to be in. Unfortunately in several situations, what happened with The Rush Limbaugh Show, is that those traffic instructions were not really being adhered to correctly, and they inadvertently fell into a show.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there has been quite a – an exodus of advertisers. Between 40 and quite a bit more than 40 have been reported. Do you think this could kill the program? It’s happened before.
KIM VASEY: You know, there’s been situations with Rush specifically before. There’s been situations with other talk show personalities, like Michael Savage, Dr. Laura over time. You know, the biggest offense, I guess, was with Imus, and that actually, you know, was the demise of his show. Certainly, it will have an impact on their, you know, bottom line revenue for quite some time.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Limbaugh thundered for his audience that [MIMICKING LIMBAUGH’S VOICE] he doesn’t care about this because he’s got 18-thousand advertisers just champing at the bit to be on The Rush Limbaugh Show. Has your phone been ringing off the hook with 18,000 advertisers trying to buy time?
KIM VASEY: Not one. And, in fact, I did receive a call, however, from one of the – the companies that we do business with that has inventory.
BOB GARFIELD: Could you reproduce for me the sort of tone of voice?
KIM VASEY: [MIMICKING CALLER] Hey Kim, this probably doesn’t come as a big surprise to you but – in case you do have any advertisers out there, I have plenty of spots to sell you, if you want to – have a great deal on inventory.
BOB GARFIELD: Fire sale, everything must go?
KIM VASEY: I think I can probably get it for less than fire sale prices, like zero dollars. [LAUGHS] Yeah, but I, I didn’t have one single taker.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Kim. Thank you so much.
KIM VASEY: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Kim Vasey is managing partner and director of radio at GroupM.