I just want to get this psychic prediction on record, so James Randi can award me the million dollars.
In the wake of yet another outpouring of popular furor over Rush Limbaugh’s offensive comments, advertisers including AOL, Sleep Number, The Sleep Train, Citrix, LegalZoom, QuickenLoans, and Carbonite, have pulled their advertising from his show. My psychic prediction is that within a month or two, they’ll all be back. Quote me on this.
It does not really require psychic powers. My job is to be skeptical of things, and among those things I’m skeptical about are media press releases. Their purpose is to garner attention, not to act in the public interest. These companies announced that they’re dropping their advertising because they want to be seen in a positive light. I’ll grant that the people at those companies may well be genuinely offended and want to do the right thing, but that’s not why decisions get made the entertainment industry when there is a lot of money at stake. I don’t know how Rush’s comments (which, by my understanding of his show, are scarcely more offensive or shocking than many of his shows) first made headlines, but my bet is that the show’s own people promoted them to get the attention.
Show business thrives on such attention — not on good will or happy thoughts. The old saying that there’s no such thing as bad PR is proven right far more often than it’s proven wrong. I don’t have the numbers on hand, but I’ll bet you anything you want that Rush Limbaugh’s listenership has been up this week. His tone is the reason that his regular listeners tune in, and anytime he’s on the front page of every newspaper and news website in the country (like this week) he’s going to have a rash of new listeners tuning in to see what all the hubbub is about.
The Rush Limbaugh show is, by a strong margin, the #1 radio show in the country. Advertisers do not let a property like that go to waste. They’ll be back after everyone’s forgotten this week’s offense.
Take this whole episode as a lesson in why sensationalism sells. Media loves sensationalism. It’s what made Oprah so popular, it’s what makes Rush Limbaugh / Glenn Beck / Bill O’Reilly / Sean Hannity popular, it’s what makes Ghost Hunters popular, it’s the reason the 2012 apocalypse myth became popular. These things are sensational. You can’t fight them by adding to the clamor and making them even more sensational; you’re just illustrating the old cliche of throwing fuel on the fire. Your disgust is exactly what keeps them popular.
Calling for sensationalism — no more how loud and ugly — to be banned from the airwaves is absurdly naive. Do you really expect the Rush Limbaugh show or any significant number of its stations to say “We’re getting too many listeners and too much attention this week; we’d better cancel our show”?
To all of those who, like myself, are working hard to spread a positive message and promote the value of reality, I suggest a different tact. Learn from the experience instead of contributing to it. Analyze sensational programs and see what they’re doing well, and see what methods they employ that would be appropriate for us to leverage in our own media. Sensationalism can be done well. It can be done ethically, it can be done positively, and it can be used to spread the message of critical thinking. That’s a hard nut to crack, but it’s a worthy goal.
And once we do it, our advertisers will keep coming back as well.