Some long overdue notes on Lowe’s canceling of its ads on a reality TV show about Islamic-American families

When the news hit last month that Lowe’s, the home improvement chain, was canceling its ads on “All-American Muslim,” a reality show about Muslim families in Michigan, it was with some guilt that I decided not to write about it. The guilt came because I felt very strongly that the Lowe’s decision was overtly anti-Islamic, which to my mind is no different from anti-Semitism and racism. I had my reasons for not commenting, one ideological and the other personal.

From the ideological viewpoint, I did not want to appear to be supporting a reality show, for these reasons:

  • These shows are often scripted, which means the reality part is fraudulent. In addition, they often contain edited sequences that do not reflect accurately what the unedited camera saw (which I am now calling “Breitbart editing” after the trust fund baby turned right-wing provocateur who turned a government official’s impassioned plea for racial understanding into a false example of black-against-white racism and got all the mass media to believe it).
  • The shows take as their basic premise the ideology of mindless consumerism—the idea that all human emotions and interactions reduce to engaging in commercial transactions. 
  • The shows manufacture talentless celebrities. At least Lady Gaga can sing a little.  The horde of Gosselins, Snookis, Tone Tones and Kardashians have no visible reason for being lionized by mass culture, other than the fact that they were featured on these shows as “real people.”
  • None of the real professionals behind these shows—the camera crew, editors, writers and directors—get union wages, which increases the profit for the show’s producers and TV networks, and therefore exemplifies one of the main ways that the top 1% have created a nation of rich and poor over the past 30+ years: replacement of union workers with non-unionized workers who make much less. 

But I also had a personal reason:  Three months earlier, I had analyzed a similar decision by a small-town Pennsylvania school board to cancel a production of Kismet, an early 50s musical which presents a very homogenized Arabic environment. I really didn’t want to repeat what I said at that time, even though it applies quite directly to the Lowe’s situation. 

Remember, it took the complaint of one man in Florida to cause Lowe’s to drop its ads on “American Moslem.” Years ago I faced the very same situation as PR counsel for a large supermarket company. An advocacy organization with a name that included the word “American” wanted the supermarket company to put brown slip covers on copies of Cosmopolitan, GQ and other supposedly racy magazines that the supermarket displayed on its shelves. An absurd request, since the material was far less risqué than what kids could see on TV and billboards. Another major supermarket had recently agreed to this organization’s demands. Instead of knee-jerking to this unnecessary assault on first amendment rights, I had an associate do some research. We found out that in the previous three years, only one complaint of the more than 50,000 that the supermarket had received had mentioned risqué magazine covers; I should point out that virtually all of the company’s stores were in rural areas or small towns, places in which one would be more likely to receive such a complaint. The other fact I uncovered was that this foundation consisted of one individual who ran such a website. We did not agree to the covers, and we received no further complaints.

It was either a strategic mistake or an expression of racism for the school board to cancel its production of Kismet, and the same goes for the Lowe’s decision to cancel its ads.  Both deserved the criticism they received at the time.

The reason I am bringing it up now is because I want to pick at a puff piece in yesterday’s New York Times about Laurie Goldberg, the public relations executive for TLC, the cable network that produces and runs “All-American Muslim.”

The high end mass media (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist and National Public Radio) are always running pieces which praise professionals of one sort of another for doing what, for the profession, is standard operating practice.

I might not have singled out this puff piece, except for one thing: the writer, Brian Stelter, throws out an extraordinarily stupid idea about crisis communications.  Here’s the key quote: “Despite all its controversial shows, TLC’s brand has remained mostly unblemished these last few years. That may be in part because, while Ms. Goldberg is genial and helpful with reporters off the record, she routinely doles out no-comments to them on the record, thereby refusing to make big stories bigger. She declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.”

The writer wants us to believe that because she officially says no comment but feeds the reporters information on the sly that she has kept the TLC brand from being harmed by controversy. But isn’t controversy what has created the TLC brand? The old saying that even bad press is good does not apply to industrial companies, hospitals and politicians, but it does apply to most controversies involving those appearing on the screen in television entertainments. All the controversies mentioned in the article (Sarah Palin’s reality show and the divorce of the Gosselins) enhanced the ratings of the shows, and I’m sure that the controversy over “All-American Muslim” has juiced up its ratings.

The fact that Goldberg answers questions off the record suggests that TLC knew that the controversy was good for business and would likely help the shows’ ratings. In my experience, if a company is worried that more information will fan the fires of bad publicity, they limit information to a “no comment.” The companies with the best PR professionals will not say “no comment,” but instead will give a statement that describes why they can’t comment, e.g., “the company has a legal obligation to keep employee matters confidential.”

The article gives us the impression that Goldberg is effective in tamping down controversy, yet the strategy that he says she uses is guaranteed to keep the controversy in the media—just what TLC wants. And it seems to have worked.

One sign of a puff piece are puff quotes.  In this article, the only people quoted are Goldberg’s bosses and a writer for People Magazine, which thrives on the type of tidbits of gossip that are the stock and trade of entertainment PR. PR people and celebrity media work hand in glove, since the one supplies the gossip that the other publishes.  The article contains no quote from any independent communications expert.

I have nothing against Goldberg, who is probably a competent professional.  What I object to is the article, which pretends to be about crisis communications, but is really a veiled advertisement for TLC’s reality shows. Thumbs down to TLC for carrying this dreck, thumbs down to the New York Times for willingly being an accomplice to TLC’s PR campaign and thumbs down to Lowe’s for pulling its advertising for the wrong reason. 

Posted in Media & Marketing Matters, Public Relations

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