Let’s call it old media versus new media.
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social media amplifying the concerns of a wave of protesters – particularly women – railing against what they saw as outdated misogyny.
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.”
The communications director for the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington also said in an e-mail to Politico: “Our decision to pull our advertising is due to the fact that current programming does not align with the Girl Scout mission. We were unaware at the time of purchase that our commercials would air during the program.”
Women’s voices have fueled the pushback. Author and activist Gloria Feldt also noted on Politico: “If Don Imus lost his job over his 'nappy headed ho' comment, then surely, as Rachel Larris at the Women's Media Center put it, Rush Limbaugh's latest insults to women are 'finally too much to bear.' ”
The depth and breadth of the reaction is something new for Limbaugh,” says Richard Goedkoop, professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “It was never anything close to this when he criticized the NFL and Donovan McNabb, although he did lose his gig at 'Monday Night Football,' ” he notes via e-mail.
Limbaugh’s statements on the law student, Sandra Fluke, “have touched a nerve beyond some of his previous outrageous statements,” he says. Since most women have used birth control at some point in their lives, and men are also affected by these decisions, “this has led to a broader target of offended parties,” he says.
Limbaugh dismissed the controversy on his show Wednesday. “Everything is fine on the business side. Everything’s cool. There is not a thing to worry about.”
He also brushed aside the growing defection of advertisers, saying the double digit numbers are “out of 18,000. That’s like losing a couple of french fries in the container when it’s delivered to you in the drive thru. You don’t even notice it.”