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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.

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For instance, the very act of calling these companies out, says Mr. Thompson, triggers media coverage and dialogues about issues such as First Amendment protections and the line between hate speech and offensive but nonetheless protected free speech. "One of the good things about people exercising their ability to complain and ask for some form of redress as guaranteed by various rights, is that it brings the conversation about those rights to far more people,” he says.

While SNL fans and its critics may disagree whether the skit insulted people of faith, the exercise of a high-profile back and forth sends an important message, notes Brett Wilmot, associate director of the Ethics Program at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

“What we see here on behalf of both parties is what we should expect in an environment in which freedom of expression is protected and encouraged,” says Professor Wilmot, via e-mail. By contrast, death threats and street violence have erupted on occasions, such as in 2005 in Denmark, when Western media published unflattering depictions of the prophet Muhammad, offending Muslims in Europe and the Middle East

AFA has not threatened anyone with harm, adds Wilmot: “It hasn't called for the writers or producers to be stoned or otherwise manhandled.” It has simply asked advertisers to choose where to spend their resources based on an evaluation of the content of the material that ad dollars were previously supporting, he notes.

An important difference between “some of the scarier examples associated with Islamist responses to blasphemy is precisely that this exchange between the AFA and NBC is taking place completely within the context of ‘speech,’ " says Wilmot.

A free society is not one that guarantees its citizens freedom from being offended, he continues, “but it is one that encourages us to respond to offenses non-violently through a further exchange of ideas."

Such give and take shows that the First Amendment to be in a healthy state, says communication professor Jeffrey McCall of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “Free speech was created and defended by the constitutional Founders to provide a robust, rough and tumble societal dialogue,” he says via e-mail. It is useful to remember, however, that in the case of such iconic media outlets as "Saturday Night Live" or Rush Limbaugh, “Rush Limbaugh is still on the air making money even after many attempts over the years to shame his sponsors.”

These outlets might lose some sponsors, but others will want to step in, says Professor McCall. “Even if Sears or other advertisers pull out, another corporation will want to reach the viewership that 'SNL' grabs each week.” 

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