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Illustration by Ethan Hendricks

Conservative media is enormously popular. So why aren’t there more mainstream ads?

Campaigns against major advertisers leave a discounted space open for hair products and dog vitamins

SHARE Conservative media is enormously popular. So why aren’t there more mainstream ads?
SHARE Conservative media is enormously popular. So why aren’t there more mainstream ads?

Radio personality Dave Ramsey is again involved in a legal battle, but this time not because of his company’s “righteous living” policy, but because of his connections with an advertiser on his national personal finance show.

Timeshare Exit Team, which Ramsey has personally endorsed, has been sued by the Washington state attorney general, who alleges the company engaged in “unfair and deceptive conduct.”

Ramsey has vehemently defended the company, which he says is the victim of an organized campaign by “scummy” timeshare companies. He has challenged a subpoena to testify in the case and angrily told timeshare companies, “You have done poked the wrong bear.”

The case, filed in February 2020, pits the word of a beloved Christian financial guru against Washington’s top legal official. 

It also exposes a problem that increasingly dogs conservative media: Despite the popularity of right-leaning shows and networks, many conservative media platforms struggle to land and maintain mainstream advertisers, leaving discounted space available for small companies selling hair color, hair plugs and vitamin supplements for dogs. As such, some personalities find themselves endorsing products and services that, in a perfect world, they’d probably rather not. 

This is a change from the heyday of talk radio in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the late Rush Limbaugh helped to make the bottled drink Snapple a household word. And it’s a change that has occurred, in part, because of social media. 

“My suspicion is that most blue-chip companies want no part of conservative opinion programming today,” Brian Rosenwald, scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Talk Radio’s America,” said in an email.

“It’s so incendiary and controversial, the clips go viral in a way that was nearly impossible when talk radio started to rise in the 1990s, and we’ve seen social-media boycotts of advertisers when activists were offended by content on shows,” Rosenwald said.

But there’s another reason that some conservative media programming struggles to find advertisers today, despite impressive ratings and a loyal, trusting audience. It’s called Media Matters for America, a nonprofit that works to undermine Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck and other voices it considers destructive.

Dave Ramsey, a conservative media figure and financial expert, smiles sitting at a desk in his broadcasting studio.

Financial guru Dave Ramsey sits in his broadcasting studio in Brentwood, Tenn., on July 29, 2009.

Josh Anderson, Associated Press

Controversy guaranteed?

Media Matters, a left-wing watchdog group founded in 2004, has previously said one of its goals is to “neutralize/undermine” Fox News, the conservative-leaning network that has dominated cable news for more than two decades. It recently ramped up the campaign, orchestrating an open letter to media buyers urging them to stop purchasing ads on the network, saying Fox “has decided to lean forward into its extremist programming.”

“Choosing to place ads on Fox News is a sure-fire guarantee that controversy will be coming your way,” the signers of the letter said.

Businesses and corporations are increasingly protective of their brand and reputation, and not only because of politics, said Dan Hiaeshutter-Rice, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He noted that in 2017, YouTube suffered what was dubbed an “Adpocalypse” when companies including Coca-Cola and Amazon pulled their advertising because their ads were being paired with disturbing content.

But Hiaeshutter-Rice said that when it comes to Fox, there’s a difference between opinion shows, like Tucker Carlson’s, and news shows, such as “America’s Newsroom with Bill Hemmer & Dana Perino.”

Media Matters doesn’t make that distinction. And a columnist for The Los Angeles Times recently wondered how Carlson could be profitable for Fox, given the lack of major advertisers on his prime-time show, which in April came in first among cable shows among viewers ages 25 to 54, the demographic most prized by advertisers.

But on a recent morning, advertisers on “America’s Newsroom” included BMW, Lexus and T-Mobile. In its campaign urging people to contact Fox advertisers, Media Matters directs them to a list that includes companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and General Motors.

Conservative media: Too big to fail?

Angelo Carusone, the president and CEO of Media Matters for America, is described on the organization’s website as “an expert on brand safety in advertising and a prolific organizer.” change behavior, or at minimum, to make it less profitable, to make it less beneficial so they’re not rewarded for what would otherwise be bad conduct.

In an interview, he said that conservative personalities and news outlets are wrong when they say Media Matters is out to destroy them. “That’s just not true. The objective is always to change behavior, or at minimum, to make it less profitable, less beneficial.

“If I went into a store, or in casual conversation, and said some of the things they say on Fox or on talk radio, people would reject that. In any other environment, most people would say, ‘Oh, that’s not nice.’ My point is, (conservative media) should not perversely incentivize that,” Carusone said. “Advertisers can be a very important lever for changing behavior.”

Carusone, who has led campaigns to boycott advertisers on the Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly programs, was also instrumental in Macy’s decision to end its business with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2015. He acknowledges that people can say Media Matters has been ultimately ineffective because Limbaugh was on the air until the month before he died, Beck and O’Reilly still banter on AM radio and on Sirius XM, and Fox remains the most popular cable news network. In 2019, Politifact examined the impact of advertising boycotts against prominent conservative media outlets and experts said there seems to be minimal effects.

“I understand that point, but I think there’s something more important at stake here,” said Carusone of Media Matters.

“At the time we started doing this work, the right-wing media was already too big too fail,” he said. “They had reached the status where they could operate with almost near impunity. Even if you cut off almost all of their advertising revenue, they can still absorb the losses and drive ahead with their destructive agenda.” Fox News, for example, would likely still be profitable without any advertising because it, like other networks, Fox makes money from the cable stations who pay “carriage fees” for the right to carry the station, he said.

Moreover, keeping pressure on advertisers helps to keep rising conservative stars like Dan Bongino and Steven Crowder from pushing the boundaries of discourse too far as streaming services and podcasts proliferate, Carusone said.

The conservative counterpoint to Media Matters, the Media Research Center in northern Virginia, declined to comment for this story.

Fox News provided a statement through a spokesperson that said, “Fox News is about to close out its fourth consecutive year delivering new records in advertising revenue, so clearly Media Matters’ predictable ongoing partisan attacks and futile attempts to deplatform the network have zero impact outside of their irrelevant echo chamber on social media.”

Geography matters for conservative media

The sensitivity that governs advertising was made clear after the terrorist attacks in 2001, said Joe Cutbirth, assistant professor of journalism and communications at the University of Texas at Austin.

Cutbirth noticed that almost all advertising disappeared from news channels in the days after 9/11 because companies pulled their ads, not wanting to risk being associated with the attacks in consumers’ minds. 

Advertisers have different goals and sensitivities depending on whether they are owned by individuals or families or by shareholders. And while he has seen no research confirming this, Cutbirth suspects that advertising decisions could be affected by the geographical locations of corporate headquarters and advertising agencies since urban areas tend to be more progressive than rural or suburban.

In other words, an advertising agency in Manhattan is less likely to recommend advertising on Sean Hannity’s radio show than a media buyer based in Nashville.

Boycotts work both ways, however, as some companies are finding. There have been calls by conservatives to boycott advertisers of more liberal voices, such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Backlash to so-called “woke capitalism” has some consumers avoiding previously cherished brands, like Disney, and one conservative group recently launched an advertising campaign against companies that it perceives to be too radical, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola and Nike.

So even if Coca-Cola wanted to advertise on “The Glenn Beck Program” or the “The Ramsey Show,” now may not be the best time. Meanwhile, the lack of what Carusone calls the “blue-chip” advertisers on some conservative media shows has proven to be a boon for many smaller advertisers.

In his recent defense of Timeshare Exit Team, Ramsey said the company had been advertising on a couple of small radio stations when they decided to buy ads on Ramsey’s national show.

“To say that their business exploded when I came on the air and told people Timeshare Exit Team will get you out (of a timeshare arrangement) is an understatement. Their business skyrocketed over the next few years, resulting in them getting ... almost 25,000 people out of their timeshares.” Ramsey said.

He went on to say that the company’s success was what got them in trouble because, according to Ramsey, the timeshare businesses started a campaign that led to the attorney general’s investigation. He said the company is no longer advertising on his show because of the legal costs they have incurred. (The company’s website, however, still features a photo of Ramsey and touts his endorsement.)

“The Glenn Beck Program” also has a similar advertiser, Timeshare Termination Team, but these and other relatively small fish in the advertising pool are safe from Media Matters’ campaigns.

“It’s not fair to attack a smaller company out of nowhere with all the media muscle we could bring to the table,” Carusone said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the individual companies. I don’t want them (the advertisers) to drop these shows. I don’t want them to advertise in the first place.”