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Cenk Uygur

Cenk Uygur

Posted February 9, 2009 | 03:38 AM (EST)

Why Firing Phelps Might Cost Kellogg's More Customers


Kellogg Co. recently fired Michael Phelps for admitting he smoked marijuana (after a picture of him taking a bong hit came out on the press). This is a decision that would have been absolutely justified in 1955. But this is 2009. No one gives a damn. In fact, they are more likely to lose customers than gain them by making such a public display of their displeasure.

You know how many people have smoked marijuana in America? A whopping 42%. That is a huge chunk of the country Kellogg has just personally insulted because they are saying implicitly that their behavior is so wrong that they would fire them over it.

But what's worse is the even larger percentage who don't care if anyone else smokes marijuana and are turned off by anyone else who judges them for it. Now, I'm not a pothead. I don't think hemp is the answer for all of our problems (you know someone smokes a lot of pot when they feverishly tell you that you can make pants out of hemp - yes, but is that what you do with it?) . But I - and everyone else I know - could not possibly care less if someone else wants to smoke pot.

Yes, there is still a certain percentage of the country that is mental about this. They have no problem if their son drinks two gallons of alcohol, but a joint and they lose it. I think this is a cultural thing more than anything else. I think pot represents hippies, liberals and all that's wrong with America to them. And yes, this is about 25% of the country.

But what about the other 75%? You annoy them when you side with the prudish minority. You offend their sensibilities when you kowtow to the puritan zealots. Every single person I have spoken to says they are less likely to buy Kellogg products now that they have fired Michael Phelps. Not because we love Michael Phelps, not because we think you can make pants out of hemp, but because it seems like they are choosing sides in the culture war. And it's the wrong side.

Now, advertisers are scared to death of doing anything political. But this firing is political. You are choosing sides with the minority of the country that cares about so-called moral improprieties like this. As a business, is that the side you want to be on? Do you really want to go against the interest of the sizeable majority?

The country has changed dramatically since the 1950's. And it appears the only people who haven't caught on to this are advertisers. You are no longer protecting your brand when you are prudish and overly careful. You just seem out of touch. Ozzie and Harriet don't exist anymore, so why are you still trying to sell them products?

Unfortunately, this outmoded way of thinking for the advertisers has enormous implications for our media, too. The sponsors are the boss. If they want plain, vanilla, boring, unchallenging programming - that is exactly what they'll get. They are scared to death of advertising in anything that pushes the envelope. So, interesting, edgy programs get edged out (or they go to HBO).

So, this antiquated mindset isn't just annoying and counterproductive, it causes the watering down of all entertainment. Whenever a big advertiser comes into a new program, the first thing they want you to do is tone down everything you do. It makes everything on television more boring, less challenging and ultimately more fake. Sponsors believe fake sells. If you're too honest or if you act like a real human being, as Phelps did the other day, then you have to be avoided at all costs. Otherwise Ozzie and Harriet will be offended. That would be true if they hadn't died thirty years ago.

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Update -- Should Kellogg have fired Michael Phelps? Vote in AOL's Hot Seat Poll right now.