Moral outrage and corporate sponsorship: are we digging our own grave?
I’ve been thinking about the Kyle Sandilands debacle a lot this week.
A quick primer for my international friends: Kyle Sandilands is an Australian radio and TV presenter. He is also a vile person. This week, a female entertainment journalist who criticised his new TV show received this gracious response from Sandilands during his radio program:
Some fat slag… What a fat, bitter thing you are… You’re a piece of shit… You little troll… You’re a bullshit artist, girl… Your hair’s very 90s… And your blouse. You haven’t got that much titty to be having that low cut a blouse.
Unfortunately, this was merely the latest tirade from Sandilands. There’s no need for me to describe why his behaviour is wrong or to recount his extensive history of verbally abusing women because most adult Australians with an IQ greater than 50 are in agreement that Kyle Sandilands is a big dickhead. You know how society needs personalities who are “controversial” or “divisive” in order to test boundaries, provoke public discourse and focus our minds on important issues? Kyle Sandilands is not one of those personalities. He’s just plainly a dickhead. You can trust me on this one.
Much of the media coverage this week has focused on the pressure mounting on corporate advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship of Kyle Sandilands’ radio and TV shows. This includes an online petition that has been set up, urging these companies to pull their advertising so that entertainment industry executives will be forced to fire him. These corporate sponsors are named and (in essence) shamed because, as the petitioners put it, they are helping to keep Sandilands on the air.
In some cases, withdrawing sponsorship can be a practically effective way of bringing about change. Even if Sandilands isn’t sacked, one suspects that a teenager in Sandilands’ juvenile audience demographic who witnesses these big companies pulling their advertising dollars might start to understand that Sandilands’ behaviour is wrong and unacceptable. Practically speaking, exerting pressure on corporate sponsors can sometimes work. But is it the right way to fight a battle? And at what cost in the longer term?
Putting pressure on corporate sponsors might be practically effective, but morally and conceptually-speaking these companies are rather arbitrary targets. These companies happen to buy advertising space on the TV and radio networks during Sandilands’ time slots. Why don’t we target other parties who have some involvement in the process? Why don’t we, for instance, put pressure on the employees who work for these networks to resign? Everyone from the production team members to the janitor who empties Sandilands’ trash: they’re all giving their labour services to the network, they’re all enablers who are helping to keep Sandilands on the air. How do they sleep at night? Or, how about we put pressure on the man who delivers the weekly fruit basket and other third party contractors? And so on.
It’s dead simple to understand why we target the corporate advertisers: because they have the greatest financial interest. Money talks, and putting pressure on the advertisers has the greatest practical effect. When you step back and think about it in these terms, there is some irony in the fact that the issues often being fought for are all about morals or principles, yet the way the public conducts its crusade isn’t principled at all. It’s pure pragmatism, rather than idealism.
But, you know, whatever. That’s just an observation.
What is more disquieting is the prospect of corporate sponsorship being aligned with what we consider to be worthy, moral or right. In cases such as the Sandilands debacle, corporations are being forced to react. (Whether they react of their own accord, or whether it’s because the public puts pressure on them, they’re reacting.) But if this happens often enough, it has the potential for some genuinely troubling consequences. Advertisers start getting used to the idea that their sponsorship is aligned with social ideals of morality. They even start pre-empting the public and begin to make their own demands of the arts and entertainment industries. Before you know it, there are threats to pull funding if these sponsors believe that the content won’t go down well with the audience (= their customers).
These companies don’t act out of altruism. Their executives don’t sit around in boardrooms debating whether something is right or wrong and whether the company has an ethical or moral responsibility not to endorse it. They are profit-driven and will usually be guided by whatever will help their bottom line. This is when we start falling into the murky, dark realm of corporate censorship.
There are a few examples of it in the United States which, frankly, terrify me. In 2003, CBS was to air a mini-series documenting the life of Ronald Reagan. The series apparently portrayed the Reagan family in an unflattering way and many feared this would not go down well with a republican audience. The conservative Media Research Center wrote to the top 100 corporate advertisers in the US, urging them not to sponsor the series. CBS eventually pulled the plug and the series was instead broadcast to a much smaller audience on its sister cable channel, Showtime. The official explanation was that the series wasn’t “balanced” enough for a CBS audience (but, in some bizarre working of logic, it was apparently fine for a Showtime audience). However, many have pointed out that Showtime is a cable channel without any advertising sponsors and is therefore immune from the threat of product boycotts.
This is probably a more extreme example, but an illustration of what can happen when advertisers start feeling captive to their consumer audience. You have to ask yourself: how does it get to this? It doesn’t happen overnight. Perhaps every time we demand withdrawal by a corporate advertiser, all we’re doing is reinforcing their role in public morality debates and edging our society one step closer to the kind of frightening corporate censorship I refer to above. Although we’re all well-intentioned in joining these crusades, I’m not sure if it’s in our best interests in the longer term.
Corporate advertising on TV and radio is a practical and commercial reality, at least for the foreseeable future. I can live with it. I would just prefer to see these corporations removed from the equation when it comes to social values and ideas of morality. To play a more neutral role. So no matter how outraged and affronted we are by douchebags like Kyle Sandilands, let’s not involve the advertisers. It could be a very slippery slope.