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Limbaugh Radio Show Faces New-Media Backlash as Advertisers Flee

Rush Limbaugh faced rising pressure from critics who are using new media to keep advertisers away from his long-running radio show.

At least 10 companies, including online publisher AOL Inc. (AOL), have dropped the most-popular U.S. talk-radio show after Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “prostitute” and a “slut.” Fluke appeared before Congress on Feb. 23 to speak in favor of President Barack Obama’s policy requiring insurers to provide birth control to women.

Much of the pressure on advertisers has come from online activists using Twitter and Facebook to mobilize against Limbaugh. They see undermining the program’s economic viability as the way to force distributor Clear Channel Communications Inc. (CCMO)’s Premiere Radio Networks (3069Q) to stop syndicating the show.

“The tactic of just asking advertisers has been a very successful one,” said Krystal Ball, a 30-year-old MSNBC commentator who started a website called boycottrush.org. “So as long as that is successful, we’ll continue.”

Ball, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010. The campaign targeting Limbaugh is led by groups like Media Matters for America and the Ohio Democratic Party.

“The social media world has really exploded,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “I think Rush Limbaugh is going to go down over this.”

More big companies, including Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD), owner of the namesake retailer and discounter Kmart, insurer Geico Corp. (156714Q) and tractor maker Deere & Co. (DE), are taking steps to ensure their advertisements stop appearing on Limbaugh’s show.

Deere Dealers

Ads were placed on the program by Deere dealers through a network and not by the manufacturer, said Kenneth Golden, director of global public relations for the Moline, Illinois- based company.

“Deere is reviewing the placement of these advertisements, as the company has not chosen to be a current advertiser,” Golden said.

Instructions to keep Sears and Kmart ads off of Limbaugh’s show weren’t followed, according to Chris Brathwaite, a spokesman for their Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based parent. The company doesn’t buy media based on political affiliations, Brathwaite said.

“Sears and Kmart did not intentionally advertise on the Rush Limbaugh show,” according to a company statement. “Sears Holdings has taken actions to ensure our ads do not run on this show.”

Geico has banned advertising on Limbaugh’s programs since 2004, according to a customer-service e-mail.

“On occasion, a local station may mistakenly run a GEICO ad in the wrong time slot,” the e-mail said. “We are directing our ad buyers to make sure that does not happen.”

‘Leftists Who Despise’

Clear Channel, based in San Antonio, didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. The company was taken private in a buyout led by Bain Capital Partners LLC and Thomas H. Lee Partners LP in July 2008.

A small number of shares of its parent, CC Media Holdings Inc., are traded publicly. CC Media lost 7.1 percent yesterday to $6.04 and has climbed 38 percent so far this year.

Limbaugh, 61, apologized to Fluke on his website on March 3 and on his radio program yesterday, saying he “acted too much like the leftists who despise me.”

He addressed the advertiser flight, telling listeners: “What we’re gonna do is replace those that leave, those that no longer want access to you, those advertisers who no longer want your business, fine. We’ll replace them. It’s simple, really.”

Short Memory

Besides AOL, companies that have suspended advertising on the show include retailer Stamps.com Inc. (STMP) and online service LegalZoom.com Inc. Hawaii’s KPUA radio station also dropped the program.

Limbaugh averaged 13.2 million listeners a week as of spring 2011, according to ratings supplied by Horizon Media Inc., an ad planning and placement company.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television, radio and media studies at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, said he expects the Limbaugh controversy to blow over as new scandals overshadow this one.

“It only becomes a problem if there aren’t other advertisers to take their place,” Thompson said. “American culture has an uncanny ability to dissolve this kind of stuff, especially with Limbaugh.”

The controversy flared from a debate over the Obama administration’s decision to require health insurers to provide birth control to women. Fluke, a past president of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, wasn’t allowed to testify at the Republican-controlled committee meeting. She addressed a panel put together by Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

As long as the controversy burns, advertisers may be reluctant to associate with Limbaugh’s program, said Steve Piluso, head of strategic planning at PHD Media, a unit of advertising agency Omnicom Group Inc. (OMC)

“Some clients will think twice about being in that environment,” Piluso said in a telephone interview. “If you’re a packaged goods company targeting women, using derogatory language, that makes brands uncomfortable.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles at cpalmeri1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Palazzo at apalazzo@bloomberg.net

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