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NBC and 'SNL' targeted over Jesus skit. Do such ad boycotts work?

Sears is taking steps to keep its ads off online rebroadcasts of the 'Saturday Night Live' skit, after a conservative Christian group complained. Such ad boycotts do have effects, say media analysts – but not usually the intended one.

By Staff writer / March 6, 2013

Actor Christoph Waltz accepts the award for best actor in a supporting role for "Django Unchained" during the Oscars on Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. A recent Saturday Night Live performance by Waltz is drawing criticism from conservative Christians.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

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Los Angeles

Austrian actor Christoph Waltz may have just won an Oscar, but his recent performance on NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" is drawing boos from conservative Christians. In an SNL skit, a mock movie trailer, he portrays Jesus as a bloodthirsty killer bent on revenge against Roman soldiers. 

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The skit, which aired Feb. 16, prompted Mississippi-based American Family Association to urge major retailers – Sears, JCPenney, and Kmart, among others – to pull their ads from NBC in protest of what the group calls “blasphemy.” This week, Sears pulled its ads from the online rebroadcast of the original "SNL" show.

“We informed customers that it wasn’t supposed to happen, and while going forward we may advertise on the broadcast, we’ve taken steps to ensure that our commercials do not air online exactly as they did in this situation," Sears said in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Such calls for ad boycotts pop up regularly to punish a media outlet for airing or distributing content deemed offensive – and they come from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Last year, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was the target of a such an ad-pulling campaign after he smeared Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke as a "slut" after she testified before Congress in favor of making birth control broadly available through health insurance. Disney"Dr. Laura" Schlessinger's talk show, Glenn Beck's talk show, Rolling Stone, and a host of others have all been boycott targets.

Such campaigns seldom lead a media outlet to drop a show, nor is there evidence that they cause the content of such shows to become more tempered, say media analysts. What they often do achieve, however, is a spirited discussion about a particular issue or even about free speech rights – at least in America.

This campaign and others “are not so effective in their direct effort,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. After all, he notes, Rush Limbaugh is still on the air, despite a massive sponsor defection at the time of the campaign. Rather, the role they play “is to become a catalyst for extremely important and ultimately influential cultural conversations about important topics.”

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