Brands, Afraid to Offend, Weigh in on Theater and News Content

Brands, Afraid to Offend, Weigh in on Theater and News Content

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Companies face a seemingly daily challenge as they grapple with boycott-ready consumers on the left and right, in addition to issues like having their ads appear next to fake news and hate speech. At times, it can put them closer than usual to the traditional boundaries between brands and those creating content.

Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulled support from New York’s Public Theater over its production of “Julius Caesar” in which the title character looks like President Trump and is killed.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Kristin Lemkau, JPMorgan’s chief marketing officer, said on Twitter on Monday that as an advertiser, she was “repulsed” that Ms. Kelly “would give a second of airtime to someone who says Sandy Hook and Aurora are hoaxes,” referring to a 2012 shooting at a movie theater near Denver. By Tuesday afternoon, her post had been reposted on Twitter more than 4,000 times and liked more than 11,000 times, accelerated by a report in The Wall Street Journal that said the company would remove its ads from NBC News television programming and online content until after the interview was broadcast.

JPMorgan’s decision was in line with the company’s policy against financially supporting fake news, said a person involved with the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal matter. The company significantly reduced the number of websites and YouTube channels it advertises on early this year as part of that policy, shortly after The New York Times discovered an ad for Chase’s private client services on a spam-filled site called Hillary 4 Prison.

While many lauded Ms. Lemkau’s message, some found the decision unusual. Stephen A. Greyser, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, said he thought it showed the company getting “too close to the editorial content of one program,” while Ms. Alaimo said the bank appeared to be “interfering in news content.”

NBC did not comment on JPMorgan’s decision, though Ms. Kelly said in a statement that while she found the claims by Mr. Jones involving the Sandy Hook shooting “personally revolting,” he was a newsworthy interview subject.

Brands have been on edge in recent months as people use social media to question them about appearing on a range of websites and shows deemed, sometimes through a partisan lens, offensive. Since November, an anonymous Twitter account called Sleeping Giants has pressured brands into pulling ads from Breitbart News, the conservative news and opinion website. In April, online groups played a role in more than 50 advertisers leaving “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News after reports that Bill O’Reilly had reached settlements with several women who had accused him of harassment.

The furor, which can flood a brand’s social media channels with complaints, has resulted in a sense of whiplash for advertisers, particularly online, where ads tend to be placed automatically based on browsing habits and cost rather than content.

On Sunday, Delta started seeing complaints on its Facebook page after a report on “Fox and Friends” about the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar.” The hosts described it as a “disgusting New York City play depicting the president brutally assassinated — all while being funded with your taxpayer dollars.” By Sunday evening, Delta and Bank of America had withdrawn their sponsorship from the play.

Jane Rosenthal, a founder and the executive chairwoman of Tribeca Enterprises, which oversees the Tribeca Film Festival, said she worried about “a chilling effect on our democracy.”

“Certain sponsors we’ve had have said they want something that is for families, they don’t want violence or sex scenes, but we have never and would never say that someone can determine what we’re going to screen,” she said.

Generally, advertisers balk at any appearance of editorial involvement. That stance helped the Fox News host Sean Hannity last month, after critics targeted his advertisers based on his unapologetic promotion of a conspiracy theory surrounding the killing of a Democratic National Committee staff member. Advertisers like Mercedes-Benz said that they did not involve themselves with editorial content, while the Sleeping Giants account stayed out of it.

Mr. Hannity, who was outraged at what he viewed as an attempt to censor him, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday to the producer of Stephen Colbert’s show, after the two apparently met on Monday. Some on the right had called for an advertising boycott of Mr. Colbert after profane comments he recently made about Mr. Trump.

“Glad you noticed I did not support boycott or firing of Colbert,” Mr. Hannity posted. “I still hate the show. #FreeSpeech”

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