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For Rush Limbaugh advertisers, backlash could hit hard in social media age

Rush Limbaugh advertisers, like most of the corporate world, need to carefully cultivate their image on social-media networks. That makes them more sensitive to social-media campaigns. 

By Staff writer / March 7, 2012

Georgetown University law student and activist Sandra Fluke (c.) speaks to co-hosts Joy Behar (l.) and Sherri Shepherd during an appearance on the daytime talk show, 'The View,' Monday in New York. Fluke talked about conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who insulted her on his radio program.

Lou Rocco/ABC/AP

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Let’s call it old media versus new media.

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On one side, there is conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh doing what made him famous on the airwaves – throwing incendiary word bombs. This time, he dubbed a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and a "prostitute” after she said at a congressional hearing that insurance should cover contraceptives.   

On the other side, a one-two punch: social media amplifying the concerns of a wave of protesters – particularly women – railing against what they saw as outdated misogyny.

In recent days, more than three dozen companies, including such big names as Sears, JCPenney, AOL, and Netflix have pulled their support for Mr. Limbaugh's show.

Did the social media campaigns force companies' hands? That's debatable. What is more certain is that as corporate America reaches out into social media more aggressively to market itself and tell its stories, that action opens it up to an occasional opposite reaction: vulnerability to having the medium turned against itself.

Social media sites such as BoycottRush.org and Limbaugh boycott pages on Facebook and Reddit have provided readers with step-by-step instructions for how to vent their displeasure at advertisers. And with companies striving to use the interconnectedness of social media to their advantage, they have to act more quickly and decisively than in the past to counter negative associations.

So, for example, if you are the online data backup provider Carbonite, and you also invest heavily in online media, the Limbaugh controversy increases the risk that you will get pulled in, says Olivier Rubel, a professor of marketing at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Davis.

“Customers will hear or read 'Limbaugh' when the brand of the company is mentioned,” he says.

Some firms have gone out of their way to distance themselves from Limbaugh, explaining their ads aired on Limbaugh’s show without their knowledge. A spokesperson for Goodwill Industries said in an e-mail to Politico: “A PSA about Goodwill was aired on a D.C.-area station that airs the 'Rush Limbaugh Show' and was done without our permission, knowledge, or consent. We asked them to remove it because this was done without our prior approval.”

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