MBPT Spotlight: Duck Dynasty Advertisers May Have Dodged A Bullet—For Now

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A&E network’s decision last Friday to reinstate Duck Dynasty reality series patriarch Phil Robertson following his suspension for making homophobic remarks in an interview does not relieve the angst that the show’s advertiser sponsors may be feeling.

The network decided that sticking to its guns and potentially losing a cash cow series that generated some $80 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar Media, during the first nine months of 2013 was not the way it wanted to go. But marketers really won’t begin to know how the public feels until the series returns for its new season on January 15.

Duck Dynasty, after premiering with 11.8 million viewers and a 5.0 18-49 demo rating for season four in August, averaged 9.1 million viewers and a 3.9 demo rating for the season, making it TV’s second most watched cable series behind AMC drama The Walking Dead, and the most watched reality series. The Duck Dynasty Christmas Special, which aired a week before Robertson’s controversial comments appeared in a GQ magazine article, drew 8.9 million viewers and a 3.5 demo rating.

Before Robertson’s comments, it had to be assumed the season five premiere of Duck Dynasty would draw north of 12 million, but now the jury is out. Judging from a Duck Dynasty marathon A&E aired on Christmas Day, there is still a mass audience of fans out there who plan to continue watching the show. However, there’s no guarantee. Repeats are usually watched by loyal fans, while more casual viewers tend to come aboard for first-run episodes.

During the controversial week, from the time Robertson’s comments were made public until A&E decided to suspend and then reinstate him when the series resumes production, only the most vocal of comments and groups were publicized. Much like voters going to the polls during a political election, there is always a silent majority out there that could generate some unexpected results.

Clearly a good section of the Duck Dynasty core audience are fans of “backwoods” reality series such as History’s Swamp People, Cajun Pawn Stars, Ax Men, Hatfields & McCoys and White Lightning; or CMT’s Swamp Pawn, My Big Redneck Vacation and Sweet Home Alabama; or TLC’s Lizard Lick Towing and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, to name a few. And if they make up a majority of the series’ viewership, then ratings for Duck Dynasty might not be that negatively impacted. There’s a possibility that viewers most offended by Robertson’s remarks are not regular viewers of Duck Dynasty in the first place. Until 10 p.m. on Jan. 15, no one will know for sure, and the impact may be felt over a certain period.

Brands At a Deciding Point
In the meantime, brands that have advertised in the series must consider whether they will continue to buy commercial time. At this point, it seems none of the advertisers have pulled out. Among brands that have run commercials in Duck Dynasty are: T-Mobile, Verizon, Samsung, Nokia, Progressive Insurance, Microsoft, Macy’s, Walgreens, IHOP and Bass Pro Shops.

The timing of the controversy, at least initially, has spared the advertisers and their media agencies from having to take a position. By the time the public outcry began, many of the media agencies had closed up shop for the holidays with most not reopening until Jan. 6. For the ones that remained open, media buyers refused to discuss the situation, even generically without speaking on behalf of specific clients.

That’s to be expected since Duck Dynasty is not just an ordinary cable show. If a series is not drawing major audience, it’s much easier for an advertiser to pull out. It is, of course, much harder when the show is a major hit and something of a cultural touchstone.

During the 2011-12 TV season, following the call for an ad boycott by the Florida Family Association, among others, Lowe’s pulled its advertising from the TLC reality series All-American Muslim. The series followed the lives of five Muslim American families in Dearborn, Mich., but the show averaged only about 700,000 viewers and a 0.3 18-49 rating. TLC eventually canceled it after one season.

Conversely, in the summer of 2012, the Parents Television Council called for an ad boycott of NBC’s America’s Got Talent after the series added Howard Stern as a judge on the entertainment competition series. With America’s Got Talent being the most-watched summer broadcast network TV series the summer before, that attempted boycott just fizzled, and AGT remains a summer hit for NBC.

Reports that the ratings for Duck Dynasty declined during the week following the disclosure of Robertson’s remarks were faulty, because the comparisons were not apples-to-apples. The week before the controversy began, A&E had aired the first run of the Duck Dynasty Christmas Special, which would be added into that week’s repeats and compared with the following week’s all-repeats schedule, skewing the numbers.

News of Robertson’s suspension was first reported later in the night on Wednesday, Dec. 18. Five repeat episodes of Duck Dynasty on that night from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. averaged 2.3 million viewers and a 0.8 18-49 demo rating. The following Wednesday, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, A&E ran its Duck Dynasty marathon the entire day. From 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., the series averaged 2.3 and 0.7, virtually the same as the previous Wednesday in primetime. In fact, it drew 2 million viewers each at 11 and 11:30 p.m. Christmas night in repeat, and 1.7 million viewers at midnight, more than many first-run cable series. At this point, it doesn’t seem like the hardcore Duck Dynasty viewer is looking to defect.

May Not Be Able To Duck Controversy
Of course from an advertiser perspective, a lot will depend on how aggressive those who were upset by Robertson’s remarks react to advertisers who continue in the show when it returns on Jan. 15. If there are groups who organize active boycotts against the brands who remain in the show, and those boycotts have an impact, there could be some advertiser pullouts. And that would be a worse scenario for A&E, which is now on record as supporting Phil Robertson, even if the series takes an ad revenue hit.

In the meantime, both advertisers and their media agencies are laying low and choosing to stay out of the fray. That the controversy flared up at the end of the holiday season when the ad industry is virtually on hiatus was beneficial to A&E. But things could heat up again when the agencies reopen on Jan. 6. Those 10 days between then and the Jan. 15 season premiere could see the debate, which has tempered over the past few days, heat up again.

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