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"Rushing" to Judgment: What Responsibility Do Advertisers Have for Civility?

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In the wake of Rush Limbaugh's offensive branding of a Georgetown University law student as "a slut" and "a whore" because she advocated for government funding of contraception (and advertisers' response in pulling their ads from his show), we all should be asking advertisers not just to be responsive but also to be proactive in creating a civil and decent America. Why? Because they can.

Let's face it. America has a media culture. Survey data reinforce the notion that long gone are the days when religion and family were principal influencers of American culture. Schools have fallen off the short list influencing teenagers. Politics still carries a hefty role but hardly in a positive sense (at least as measured on a civility scale). Business is a major influence in the daily lives of working Americans who are still expected to work and act in a somewhat respectful and respectable way in the workplace. But media is what we hear 24/7 and what consumes our public discourse.

That's why Rush's comments (and so many similar ones) are often destructive and distracting to the greater good -- media takes on a life of its own, not just on the airwaves but by creating a chain reaction that lives on in the public and private conversations of America. A case on point -- in every community in America there were so many more worthy stories about good deeds, yet because of media's influence on our country, two weeks ago we all focused primarily on Rush.

So it was refreshing to me when Quicken Loans and others (including AOL, parent of Huffington Post) "rushed" to pull their ads from his show because his message of hate and derision no longer fit the messages their brands represented. But why did they wait so long? Clearly this was not the first time that Rush (and others) had exceeded standards for respectful behavior in our country. I have to conclude that at some level, at least to the advertising executives, audience impressions were more important than the greater good of country and customers.

The larger question is: What ought to be advertisers' responsibility for civility and the greater good of America? I believe a lot -- for two reasons. The first is self-preservation. The adage is true: getting too close to fire ultimately gets you (or your brand) burned.

Thirty-some years ago, when salacious morning talk radio was coming into vogue, my close friend and mentor Gordon E. Heffern, then Chairman and CEO of Society National Bank, the predecessor to KeyBank, was listening to the radio on his morning drive into work. He heard a Society commercial juxtaposed with the new, most provocative morning talk radio host. He immediately called his chief marketing officer to inquire why his bank was supporting such bombast and negativity in America. The advertising chief shook it off. "Gordon," he said. "It's the ratings -- we're reaching our target audience in a big way," to which Gordon responded, "Do it some other way -- this isn't respecting our brand or our customers!" He didn't wait to see which way the winds blew -- the ads were pulled that day. And the ads never went back on that show. Unfortunately, no other advertisers followed Society's lead. No wonder we have the current state of advertising.

The second reason is that businesses have a responsibility for the customers and communities they serve. At least, that's the proclamation in the "Report on Social Responsibility and Sustainability" that a majority of publicly-traded companies now post on their web sites. Many of those companies are stellar corporate citizens, providing sustained employment, supporting charities, improving the environment, bolstering sound local government, and working with the local schools.

Many, like Quicken Loans, have great corporate cultures and care about their employees like old-fashioned family enterprises.

But too few of these companies take responsibility for the potential role they can have in shaping the culture of America. They may value the values inside their companies, but they do not put their values-in-action outside of their companies to influence America.

American business can have a powerful bully pulpit in tipping America back toward civility. In addition to their advertising dollars and messages, they employ roughly 150 million Americans -- almost half our country -- in their workforce; however, the values of the workforce -- cooperation, collaboration, teamwork and accomplishment -- are being undermined by the lack of civility in media that is affecting America outside of the workplace. Ultimately -- and this will happen -- unless American businesses push American culture positively, American culture will tip American business negatively.

So business' role in shaping America's culture, for what is transmitted on the airwaves, on the Internet and in public dialogue will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By and large, what business puts out or allows to happen in America is what it will get back into its workplace culture through its employees. In large part, our collective future will be shaped by the responsibility American businesses take today!

In addition to the workforce, there are 55 million children in America's primary and secondary schools. Let's not just leave civility and values to American businesses -- schools have a pivotal role in the equation and coalition that can restore respectful dialogue to America. In Japan, citizens refer to their teachers as "nation-builders." Right or wrong, when was the last time Americans referred to our teachers with this level of respect? But if teachers take their responsibility seriously -- that education is not just about competence but about character, as well -- teachers will earn our regard and the future of our country will be better because of their influence and expanded roles.

Rev. Al Sharpton recently observed that "We are not each others' adversary. If we cooperate instead of compete, we can make America work for everybody." If this vision is to become reality, both businesses and teachers must recognize that they have an awesome responsibility to America that goes beyond profit or performance, selling a product or delivering a test.

In fact, creating a more civil country will take all of us getting involved. To download a sample letter, asking your favorite, socially-responsible advertisers to take a greater, more responsible and proactive role in delivering messages of civility and respect,
go to www.purpleamerica.us or www.facebook.com/PurpleAmerica.us