Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

The relationship between TV political pundits and the opposition activists they love to agitate has created a strange dance in recent years. Activists wait for pundits to say something they can use to create a headline, and pundits work to give them sound bites that they know will aggravate the opposition and energize their fans.

But there’s a difference between keeping the dance going and crossing the line. Some pundits seem to love skirting that edge, keeping their audience wondering what they’ll say next. Sometimes, though, that speech tweaks the wrong group or pushes the wrong buttons, leading to PR and profit consequences for the pundits and the networks that employ them.

Case in point: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. During a recent segment about immigration on his “Tucker Carlson Tonight” program, Carlson opined that the country needed more “scientists and engineers” and fewer lower-skilled workers. Then he said: “Instead we’re getting waves of people with high school educations or less. Nice people, no one doubts that, but as an economic matter this is insane … our leaders demand that you shut up and accept this… even if it makes our country poorer and dirtier …”

That statement became the equivalent to a bomb going off. Advertiser boycotts, a protest method that has worked well in recent years, were threatened by activists, and advertisers, predictably, were shaken at the prospect of being targeted. Multiple advertisers began canceling their support of Carlson’s program, including IHOP, which coupled their announcement with a statement tacitly denouncing Carlson:

“At our core, we stand for welcoming folks from all backgrounds and beliefs into our restaurants and continually evaluate advertising to ensure it aligns with our values … In this case, we will no longer be advertising on this show.”

Other brands, including Pacific Life Insurance Company and Bowflex maker Nautilus, have also come out against Carlson. Pacific Life’s message was clear: “(We will) not be advertising on Mr. Carlson’s show in the coming weeks as we reevaluate our relationship with his program …”

Fox News immediately fired back, calling the threatened boycott “weaponized social media,” and referring to the response to Carlson’s comments as an “unfortunate distraction” and “an effort to stifle free speech.” The network said it “will not allow voices like Tucker Carlson to be censored ...” and vowed to work through the situation with advertisers.

That kind of response is what Carlson’s viewers and fans expect. While it hasn’t happened in this case — at least not yet — some supporters may opt for counter-protests, boycotting the companies that’ve announced they would no longer advertise.

Many companies in recent years have been caught in the crossfire of these kinds of politically-charged narratives and have chosen to step back entirely, focusing on getting their message out to a receptive audience without playing into the political debates surrounding these shows.

In the end, each brand has to decide where they want to fall on these issues. But, whether they support, oppose or abstain, there will always be PR consequences, so they should always properly prepare.