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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How the Boycott Dumped Beck

Mark Engler has a revealing post up at Dissent, “Boycott Power and the Fall of Glenn Beck,” which ought to open up a new era of political activism for those who are looking for ways around tiresome political gridlock. As Engler explains Beck’s demise as King of wingnut TV:

One can find a variety of explanations for his departure. Observers invariably note Beck’s declining ratings. (According to the New Republic, his viewership fell “from an average of 2.9 million in January 2010 to 1.8 million in January 2011.”) Some also cite political reasons for him and Fox splitting ways. Hendrik Hertzberg speculated at the New Yorker that Beck was bad for morale at the network because he became an embarrassment for those on staff who consider themselves “news professionals.” More recently, Leslie Savan argued at the Nation that Beck was expendable because “he’s served his purpose for Fox and its subsidiary, the Republican Party.” Once the backlash against Obama was well underway and more respectable faces of extreme conservatism were in power–folks like Paul Ryan and Scott Walker–Beck was no longer needed.
These things may have been part of the story. But, if we’re handing out credit, I think we need to take time to recognize the innovative and relentless boycott that set out to strip Glenn Beck of his sponsors. The boycott was amazingly effective at doing just that–ultimately convincing several hundred corporations (including major names such as Wal-Mart, GEICO, and Procter & Gamble) to agree not to advertise on his show.
The online advocacy group ColorOfChange.org first launched the boycott in August 2009, after Beck stated that President Obama was a racist with a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” Following this, the activists did a great job of documenting the crazy and offensive things that Beck would say, and then presenting advertisers with the evidence. They got 285,000 people to sign a petition to Beck’s sponsors, and they used online tools to transmit people’s concerns to the targeted corporations. Advertisers, generally averse to controversy, left in droves.

Impressive, and it gets better. As Engler notes “ColorOfChange.org crunched some numbers and estimated that the boycott was costing Fox News more than $500,000 per week.” The boycott was shrewdly targeted, as Engler observes:

There are some lessons here about what makes a good boycott. The ColorOfChange.org drive wasn’t about getting the average American not to watch the show. It was different from the endless array of lefty boycotts that tell people not to shop at this store or buy that product, campaigns that–beyond those commandments–have no real plan for winning their demands or even for quantifying the impact they’ve made. The Beck boycott was far more strategic. Its organizers identified wary advertisers as their point of leverage, targeted specific corporations that were buying ads, and used the announcement of each new company that agreed to withdraw as a way to build momentum. By March 2011 the New York Daily News reported that “the number of advertisers currently boycotting Beck’s program is now closing in at 400.”

Engler notes that MSM explanations for Beck’s demise credit myriad factors and tended to diss the boycott. But Engler makes a strong case, and activists looking for new avenues to battle the right wing obstructionists should give his piece a read.
MLK once said advocates of social justice should do two things in every campaign: register voters and conduct boycotts. In recent years progressives have done some voter registration (not enough) but very little boycotting. Apparently the time is right to pick up the slack.

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