09/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Advertisers Should Not Cancel Ads in Glenn Beck's Program

Last week commentator Glenn Beck lost several advertisers in his Fox News program after he said President Obama was a racist with a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture," according to the NY Times.

According to "Color of Change, an African-American online political organization ... has been spurring advertisers to stop supporting the show." And that "Procter & Gamble, Progressive Insurance and SC Johnson all said their ad placements during the broadcast were made in error and that they would correct the mistake."

The pressure on marketers to cancel advertising on TV programs that an interest group finds objectionable brings back memories of the Reverend Donald Wildmon's protests in the late 1970s against television shows that he thought promoted immoral lifestyles. He spoke against such programs as "Three's Company," "M*A*S*H," and "Dallas" and urged his fundamentalist followers not to buy products from companies that advertised in the targeted programs.

His efforts failed miserably because consumers weren't going to stop buying Tide, Charmin, Prell, Colgate tooth paste, or Fords because Wildmon didn't like "M*A*S*H."

As David Ogilvy said in the 1960s, "the consumer is not a moron, she's your wife." Consumers are smart enough to understand that advertising is independent of programming and does not constitute an endorsement of the content. An advertiser that runs commercials on professional wrestling on TV is not signaling that it endorses stupidity and violence.

It is ironic and a sign of the changing times that in the 1970s the conservative, evangelical Mississippian Donald Wildmon pressured advertisers to cancel advertising in popular entertainment programs he considered immoral, and that an African-American group today is pressuring advertisers to cancel advertising in a conservative opinion program.

But the larger question it seems to me is about the ethics of urging advertisers to use their economic power to influence the agenda on the public debate.

As much as I despise racist remarks, right-wing hate mongers such as Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter, and over-the-top liberal hate mongers such as Keith Olbermann, and as much as I feel these venomous snakes are poisoning the TV atmosphere and polluting the public debate and debasing the agenda on issues of public importance, I don't want to silence them. I don't want to restrict their freedom of speech.

Restricting their freedom of speech would be worse for the country in the long run than the damage their poison does in the short term. And we don't want to go down the slippery slope of having advertisers decide which speech or which political opinion to support.

If we encourage advertisers to withdraw their support from conservatives such as Beck and O'Reilly because some people don't like their views, then it follows that we should encourage advertisers to withdraw their support from liberals Olbermann and Rachel Maddow because some people don't like their views either.

Furthermore, the idea of free speech has two concepts imbedded in it. Free in one sense means people should feel free to voice their opinions, whatever those views are. Free in another sense means that people should have access to information and opinion at no charge - that ideas should circulate freely in an open marketplace of ideas so that people can freely compare ideas and embrace the ones they like (that confirm their own biases).

Thus, for free speech to flourish and for the marketplace of ideas to be stocked with a plethora of competing ideas, we need Fox News, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post, and yes, even Rush Limbaugh.

Remember, if it weren't for Fox News and Bill O'Reilly, we wouldn't have Stephen Colbert and probably even Jon Stewart to make fun of conservatives.

Most national advertisers are smart enough and sensitive enough to public opinion and sensibilities to understand where to place their advertising for maximum effectiveness. Most of these marketers know what type of content is relevant and conducive to influencing a product's liking or purchase. If pressure groups try to get advertisers to use their economic power for reasons other than advertising effectiveness, then they unwittingly encourage Pandora to open her box of unintended consequences, especially the potential limitation of free speech.

And advertisers that bow to pressure to expand their advertising criteria beyond branding and buying tacitly admit that they are willing to use their economic power to influence the content of the national debate. Therefore, they should not cave in to pressure.

They should say to pressure groups something like this: "We disagree completely with and abhor Mr. Beck's remarks, but we wholeheartedly defend his right to say them in a society that honors free speech, and we will not pull our advertising at this time. We hope Mr. Beck will refrain from making racist remarks in the future. We will also continue to place advertising in Rachel Maddow's TV program."

In the long run consumers will respect courage and the upholding of a basic value such as free speech more than kowtowing to pressure groups. However, an advertiser that does not cave in must frame and communicate its decision in terms of upholding free speech and at the same time denounce inappropriate remarks. By doing so, an advertiser would signal to Beck and Fox News that it will not continue to advertise in a program or on a channel that has a pattern of racist or other hateful remarks and signal to pressure groups that it does not support inappropriate, racist comments.

It's OK for advertisers to try to influence the tone or decency of the public dialogue, but not its content or agenda. It's a fine line, but advertisers must try to walk it thoughtfully.