Companies like United, IBM, and Delta promote themselves as champions of diversity and inclusion. So why have they been bankrolling a television star who, in the span of just one week, earned headlines for sexually harassing female colleagues and mocking an esteemed Black congresswoman’s hair on national television?
For too long, too many people have played off people like O’Reilly, and the whole idea that it even matters what people like him say and do, whether on air or off air. It matters. Donald Trump was once just a media figure whom advertisers and media executives enabled, brushing off their responsibility for doing so, and it grew out of control.
The bombshell revelations about Bill O’Reilly’s latest sexual harassment scandal have been a wake-up call to brands that have been all too willing to air advertisements during a show that traffics in sexism and racism on a nightly basis. But, as these advertisers run for the doors, they can’t claim that this is the first time they’ve heard about O’Reilly’s bad behavior.
The Fox star’s well-documented history of sexism and racism is arguably the most troubling of anyone on television. O’Reilly first faced public accusations of sexually harassing female colleagues as early as 2004. His ex-wife has accused him of assault. He’s stirred up fears about Black communities by lying about being attacked during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And just a few weeks ago, in a racist, sexist one-two punch, he went on national television and mocked the hair of a beloved, seventy-eight-year-old champion for Black communities, Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Perhaps most damning of all, the only voice we’ve seen come to O’Reilly’s defense since his latest scandal broke is President Donald Trump, who shares O’Reilly’s vision for a country where Black people and women are targets of harassment and discrimination, and rich, corrupt white men get to abuse whomever they want with impunity.
Each and every time O’Reilly’s sexism and racism has made headlines, most of his corporate sponsors have simply chosen to look the other way. But now that the latest scandal has become a firestorm, they’re out of excuses. By associating their businesses with O’Reilly’s brand of bigotry, his advertisers are sending a powerful message that his actions are acceptable and that their brands endorse this un-American behavior.
It’s long past time for every O’Reilly advertiser to pull their sponsorship of the show, and to think long and hard about how their dollars support television content that shapes American culture for better or worse, including how hospitable—or not—our workplaces are to women and people of color. These companies all have an important role to play in changing the rules of how the television industry works and making it financially toxic for the networks to broadcast hate speech like O’Reilly’s into America’s living rooms night after night.
Make no mistake—every time “The Factor” goes to commercial, the ads we see are from the businesses and corporations that keep the show alive. United pays O’Reilly’s salary. Capital One pays for attacks on an esteemed Black congresswoman. IBM pays for the lawyers who fight the victims of O’Reilly’s sexual harassment. And Microsoft pays to help Fox News keep trying to cover up its toxic workplace culture that, to this day, continues to protect its powerful white men at the expense of their female and Black colleagues. More than any other outside actors, these companies have the power to shape the content decisions television networks are making. Women, people of color and many other Americans are watching to see if they’ll use their influence to shape our country for the better—or whether they’d rather make a quick buck at the expense of our safety and well-being.
It’s clear that Fox News will continue protecting O’Reilly unless his advertisers take action. Fox News and 21st Century Fox promised to clean up their shop after Roger Ailes resigned last year, but the culture has not changed and the cover ups continue. Despite the promises to change, Fox News renewed O’Reilly’s contract and has helped him quietly reach settlements with the victims of his sexual harassment. And, just this month, three Black women employees of Fox News filed a lawsuit against the company for racial discrimination.
That’s why the campaign calling on advertisers to drop O’Reilly is so critical.
And it’s a strategy that has proven to work. In 2011, my organization Color Of Change forced Fox News to finally drop then-network star Glenn Beck after years of his race-baiting witch hunts and deeply divisive rhetoric. Fox didn’t drop their star because we appealed to Rupert Murdoch’s conscience. The network dropped Beck because we hit Fox News where it hurts – Rupert Murdoch’s bank account – by pressuring hundreds of advertisers to pull their sponsorship of Beck’s show. We succeeded in bringing pressure to bear on Beck’s advertisers by organizing Black communities and our allies as a consumer base and showing these major brands that continued support for Beck would permanently damage their brand with Black consumers and our allies. Only when Fox News and Murdoch heard the sound of all that money rushing out the door did they take action and cancel Beck’s show.
As a result of the activism of engaged Americans and groups like Color Of Change, we’re seeing this strategy bring pressure to bear on Fox News once again. We’re living in a moment in which American consumers are paying attention to the actions of brands in a very different way, and everyday Americans and groups like mine are mobilized and acting aggressively to hold brands accountable for actions, policies or sponsorships that run contrary to their stated values. That’s why we’ve seen dozens of sponsors drop O’Reilly in the past two weeks.
While it’s critical for corporations to pull their ads from O’Reilly’s show, companies that are only now taking action are hardly taking a brave stand. It’s time for corporations that have long sponsored bigoted stars like O’Reilly and Beck to stand up for American values. Despite what O’Reilly and Donald Trump want us to believe, most Americans find their politics of hate disturbing and disgraceful—and companies are going to start paying a price for associating with bigots who attack their consumers. Indeed, most companies depend on the business of women, people of color and others whom O’Reilly has routinely victimized. Many corporations have also spent millions trying to brand themselves as champions of diversity and inclusion. But any company that wants to maintain that image needs to make sure that their dollars are not used to provide platforms for racism and sexism. Now more than ever, corporations will have to answer publicly for whom their dollars support. Black folks, women and many others are paying attention to who stands up for them when no one’s looking and who speaks out only when it’s a PR disaster not to. Our communities are working to make it impossible for corporations to continue quietly profiting off sexism and racism.