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.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
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.

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. 

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.”

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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