What Brands Can Learn From the Fallout Surrounding Megyn Kelly’s Interview With Alex Jones

The price of courting controversy

Sunday's show had significantly fewer big brand ads than past episodes.

It has been rough a week for NBC’s newest superstar, Megyn Kelly.

After the host revealed last Sunday that she would be interviewing conspiracy theorist and InfoWars founder Alex Jones as part of her Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly program, backlash was swift. Some took offense to the network giving Jones such a prominent platform after he helped spread the bizarre theory that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which killed 20 children and six adults, was an elaborate hoax. Others criticized the network’s promotional efforts and questioned whether Kelly had the track record to pull off such an interview.

Among the latter is Rashad Robinson, executive director of advocacy organization Color of Change. His group previously launched campaigns to pressure advertisers to leave Fox News programs hosted by Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly.

“Megyn Kelly had a show on Fox News, which makes money on passing off racist, sexist, hateful ideas,” Robinson told Adweek. “That’s how she became famous. So her moving over to NBC is not about Megyn Kelly, it’s about NBC saying they’re comfortable making money off the same things. NBC is the same network that gave Trump a prime-time weekly spot on The Apprentice while he was going around the country using racist tropes against [President Obama].”

Robinson clarified that Color of Change did not plan to launch a campaign against Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, adding, “There’s a lot of moral authority for parents of the victims of Sandy Hook to stand up and speak out.”

Advertisers found out about Jones’ appearance when the network began promoting the interview last Monday, nearly a week ahead of its airing. JPMorgan Chase publicly announced the following day that it had withdrawn all local broadcast and online ads from NBC News until after the airing of the program.

Chief marketing officer Kristin Lemkau registered her outrage on Twitter.

JPMorgan Chase wasn’t the only advertiser to withdraw from the program. One media agency executive, who spoke to Adweek on condition of anonymity, revealed that one client pulled a planned ad from the program, while another, who had not advertised on Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly in the past, had added the show to a “do not buy” list until further notice.

“We usually only let the client know [of a controversy surrounding a program] if they have inventory scheduled in that program,” the media agency executive explained, adding, “we hadn’t even contacted the client” when the latter party informed them of the decision to avoid the show.

The executive said that the agency and clients will monitor the program in the coming weeks and will “likely return” if there is no further controversy.

On Friday, WVIT, a local Connecticut NBC affiliate, announced that it would not air the program at all, instead running “The Voices of Sandy Hook” in its 11 p.m. time slot. As explained in an internal memo obtained by TVNewser, that program featured “Sandy Hook parents, Governor Malloy and others who work to affect change around violence and mental illness.”

On June 15, Page Six claimed that NBC and Megyn Kelly had “overhauled” the program to feature a more biting critique of Jones. Kelly also reportedly reached out to the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, one of whom appeared on the program. Sandy Hook Promise, a gun violence prevention nonprofit started by families of the victims, had previously dropped Megyn Kelly as the host of its annual Promise Champions Gala over the interview.

The promotion of the program and subsequent pressure on NBC to drop the interview, as well as on brands to avoid advertising during the program, speaks to a climate wherein advocates take to social media to hold such entities accountable and attempt to influence change.

Brands cannot underestimate the ability of controversy to spread more quickly than anticipated and swell beyond expectations.

Like Color of Change, Sleeping Giants is an example of an organization at the heart of this shift. The group informs brands when their digital ads, purchased programmatically, appear in places like far right wing website Breitbart.

While the group did not launch any sort of campaign targeting NBC or advertisers on the program, it did monitor the situation closely on social media as its Twitter account served as a focal point for related debates.

The Sleeping Giants co-founder, who opts to remain anonymous, said the situation was “complicated” and “not as cut and dry as some of the stuff we’ve been working on. On the one hand, it’s important for journalists to interview who they want to interview,” the spokesperson said, adding, “[Jones] doesn’t need any more spotlight than he already has.”

“If it is going to air, there shouldn’t be anyone profiting from it,” added Sleeping Giants. “Clearly NBC did it as a ploy to get better ratings. We don’t think they should be making money off the pain of Sandy Hook. Advertisers are taking a huge risk, we think, by getting involved.”

If the segment was, as he later called it, a “naked play for ratings,” it was an unsuccessful one. As Adweek reported earlier today, the show had only 3.5 million total viewers and lagged well behind a 60 Minutes re-run that brought in 5.3 million.

Big-name advertisers that bought ads on previous episodes, including Bank of America, McDonald’s, Toyota, Mazda, Universal Pictures and 20th Century Fox, sat this one out. The episode’s first commercial break didn’t arrive until around 20 minutes into the program, and overall NBC aired a total of 12 promos for its own programming along with a number of PSAs.

The show’s advertisers included a number of pharmaceutical brands including Xyzal, which returned to the program for the third time, as well as Gold Bond, Allegra, Aspercreme and Cortizone. Procter & Gamble promoted its Head & Shoulders brand during the show and Sun Products’ Snuggle brand also ran a spot. Local Hyundai dealers also ran regional spots during the commercial break following the Jones interview segment.

NBC claims the big advertisers will be back, but it’s hard to say how the controversy surrounding the episode, coupled with the fledgling show’s continued struggles to bring in viewers, could impact the future of Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly and NBC’s relationship with its advertising partners.

This incident and the disproportionate amount of media attention it received reminds us, once again, that brands cannot underestimate the ability of controversy to spread more quickly than anticipated and swell beyond expectations. Many advertisers fearful of being caught up in the back-and-forth will choose to step aside rather than face the risk of any damage to their reputations.