How fast can Don Imus' sponsors get away?
On Monday, radio host Don Imus was suspended for two weeks for calling members of the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." Three major advertisers, including Procter & Gamble and Staples responded by yanking their spots from the show. How easy is it for advertisers to pull their ads?
Remarkably so. All an advertiser has to do is call up the network and ask that its ads not run during a certain program—or not at all. That doesn't mean the network loses the money paid for the yanked ad—at least not in the short run. Instead, it's usually the advertiser that takes the hit. When a company buys an ad spot, its contract often includes a clause specifying how far in advance it has to notify the station if it wants to pull out. For example, if Procter & Gamble had agreed to give MSNBC three weeks' notice, they would have to pay for that whole period even if they got their ads yanked right away. So, the network may not start to lose money immediately, but down the road, the departure of a big client like Procter & Gamble would be painful.
In any case, companies that have long-term relationships with a network rarely sever all ties. More often, they try to shift the ad to another time slot, or to another affiliated network. For example, one of the advertisers pulling its spot from MSNBC's Imus in the Morning might shift it to Bravo or CNBC, which are owned by the same parent company. Companies request ad shifts all the time, usually for more mundane reasons, such as changes in content. (Back when NBC planned to replace reruns of the hospital drama ER with new episodes of the Irish-American gangster series The Black Donnellys, for example, advertisers were given the option to switch their slots.) Of course, shifting one ad means displacing another that would have occupied that space—a trickle-down effect that could result in lost revenue for the network. With Proctor & Gamble, however, shifting time slots isn't an option: P&G rotates its ads around MSNBC's daytime schedule instead of buying time on a specific program. Thus, by pulling its ads from Imus, P&G is pulling its ads from all other daytime MSNBC shows too.
When an advertiser pulls its spots altogether, the network's sales team has to fill the space. In general, they'll contact other advertisers first to see if they would be willing to buy the vacated spot, most likely at a discounted rate. If no one bites, they may opt to run a public service announcement. Another option is to extend the program to cover the missing advertisements. In the case of live radio, filling air time is relatively easy. On television, it can be more difficult, since programming is often pre-edited and less flexible.
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Explainer thanks Christine Campbell of Garrand and Bob Leonard of Strategic Media.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Don Imus by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.