Editor’s Note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
If any brand could be considered synonymous with the holidays, Hallmark is near the top, if not number one. That’s why their move last week to erase lesbian representation from advertising on their network left an especially bad taste in people’s mouths, leading to tremendous backlash and the company’s ultimate decision to restore the ads to their network.
Two days ago, Hallmark made a knee-jerk decision in response to a bit of steam coming from a well known conservative group, and pulled advertising for the wedding site Zola because it featured same-sex female couples. Of significant note, the network did not remove Zola’s other ads featuring different-sex couples.
The organization One Million Moms – known for frequently condemning content that contains LGBTQ themes – issued a statement, claiming that, “Hallmark movies are family-friendly, and you ruined it with the commercial.”
To add insult to injury, a spokesperson from Hallmark said on Friday that the ad was pulled because it violated the channel’s policies with “public displays of affection.” Of additional significant note, the other ads were nearly identical – save that they featured a bride and groom rather than two brides.
On Sunday evening, Hallmark President and CEO Mike Perry released a statement apologizing and reversing the company’s decision, saying, “The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused. Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision.”
The reversal to restore the ads on Sunday may be too little too late after a decision that might hurt the brand’s bottom line not just in the short-term, but for a long time to come.
Let’s put aside that same-sex couples accessing their federally-guaranteed right to legally wed in front of the nearest and dearest is pretty much as family-friendly as one can get. We’re not debating live-streamed orgies here (however much that could boost Hallmark Channel’s ratings).
Regardless, the fact that Hallmark initially caved to a loud but fangless fringe group is troubling.
For one, One Million Moms has far fewer than one million supporters. They have just over 96,000 fans on Facebook, not even one-tenth of the number they claim in their name. And as of Sunday evening, they have just over 4,200 Twitter followers. The reality is, they don’t have the audience size or purchasing power to move big brands to do anything differently. The LGBTQ community, on the other hand, does.
What the homophobic group One Million Moms does have is a good PR machine; precisely what Hallmark is lacking. As a public relations and marketing professional with more than 15 years in the trenches for brands large and small, including extensive crisis communications experience, I can imagine how Hallmark came to the wrong conclusion at first.
The whole thing probably started with a Tweet or two. An angry person who doesn’t believe that same-sex couples have a right to exist alongside different-sex ones saw the commercial and took to social media to complain. Hallmark likely took note, the social media manager and the PR team were put on high alert, but they rightly took no further action.
Then One Million Moms issued a statement, which created some buzz. They deployed their form letter and called on their supporters to send letters to Hallmark. Hallmark saw an uptick in negative mainstream news coverage and a flood of letters from angry moms.
This is where they went wrong.
Rather than re-entrenching to support their advertiser Zola and their LGBTQ customers, viewers and allies, Hallmark got scared. They could have issued a fairly innocuous statement that would have garnered more positive than negative response – if they had only looked to brands like Nike, Pantene, or Coca-Cola for reassurance that supporting diversity pays dividends.
What’s more, if Hallmark had done a little digging to confirm that One Million Moms is actually more like 100,000 Moms, and some of those are probably people following them but not in full agreement with their agenda, it may have defanged their fright. In fact, Hallmark’s core demographic – women aged 25 to 54 – overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage. There may well be more than one million moms of LGBTQ children who are now angry at Hallmark for scrubbing their loved ones from their programming.
In siding with One Million Moms for two days and removing the ads from its network, the brand not only upset millions of customers – LGBTQ and allies – who are the brand’s bread and butter, they also did so right smack in the middle of the holiday season, Hallmark’s busiest time of year. To make a decision in favor of fewer than 100,000 angry “moms” and dismiss the 63% of Americans – more than 200 million people – who support same-sex marriage – is a rash misfire, not a calculated decision by a brand with rational thinking and crisis communications planning.
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Zola was right in removing the entirety of their ads from Hallmark. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because they will likely also see a surge in business as people flock to support the brand that chose to stand on the right side of history and inclusion.
In some ways, Hallmark has done the same thing many of our own relatives have done to us as LGBTQ over the years – essentially telling us we can’t come home for the holidays because a bigoted aunt threatened not to come if we do. It’s just too bad for Hallmark that homophobia is bad for business.