News

Business - not politics - led to Imus' demise

Ron Harris
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

WASHINGTON - In the end, radio host Don Imus was fired because he didn't recognize the new, more diverse corporate America.

He didn't think about all of those average women and African-American employees at companies such as General Motors, Proctor & Gamble and Staples, and some not-so-average women and minorities who sit in seats of power at those companies.

Nor did he recognize that huge amounts of cars, cell phones, telephone services, drugs and a plethora of consumer products are purchased by women and minorities annually - part of the reason his advertisers bolted.

It was business - not necessarily "the right thing to do" - that led to Imus' demise, those in the business community say.

To be sure, there were lots of organizations and individuals asking for the radio and television personality's head after he referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed ho's."

The National Association of Black Journalists was the first, followed soon by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Civil rights figure Al Sharpton said the popular shock jock should be fired.

Then Jesse Jackson and a handful of protesters stood outside the CBS studios in Chicago demanding his removal.

But all that those protests led to was a two-week suspension for Imus' show.

Then, advertisers responded. Ditech.com, GlaxoSmithKline, General Motors, Proctor & Gamble, Staples, Sprint Nextel, American Express and TD Ameritrade pulled their ads from MSNBC.

In turn, MSNBC pulled Imus, permanently.

The reasons the companies dropped their ads reflect the economic dynamics in America, said Ernest Green, managing director at Lehman Brothers, a global financial services company.

"In part, the firing reflects the change in the economic clout of women and African-Americans," Green said. "Just look at the huge expansion of the black middle class after the Civil Rights Act."

Richard Cole, chairman of the department of advertising, public relations and retailing at Michigan State University, points out that the minority population is growing at a rate five times faster than the rest of the population.

"And that's not just the demographers who understand that," Cole said.

Women, who now make up a much greater proportion of the work force, represent a financial market much more vast than 20 years ago, Cole and others said.

Companies obviously had that in mind when they pulled their ads, said Barron H. Harvey, dean of the School of Business at historically black Howard University in Washington.

"You cannot disrespect the diverse consumer dollar," Harvey said.

To keep from doing that, advertisers are loath to be associated with broadcast programs that offend an important consumer group. Doing so interferes with their primary goal - selling their products, Cole said.

"Whenever there is an emotion that is triggered around program content, advertisers have to be very careful that that emotion doesn't spill off on their brand," he said. "Their brand equity is everything."

Cole gave an example from his days of handling advertising for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Michigan.

"One of my dearest friends was the president of WJR radio station," he said. "Well, they decided to put on Rush Limbaugh. As soon as I heard that, I put the word out that I didn't want our advertising anywhere near Rush Limbaugh, not because I didn't like Limbaugh.

"I was protecting the image of the Blue Cross brand. Why should we risk the reputation of the brand with someone who is likely at some point to offend everyone?

"On the other hand, I gave (Detroit Tigers announcer) Ernie Harwell $10 million over 10 years to be a spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. That wasn't a big risk because you can go to your grave knowing that Ernie Harwell is never going to do anything to embarrass you."

Additionally, affirmative action and civil rights laws have transformed the face of the American workplace. Women and minorities represent a much larger portion of company employees, and major corporations are trying to maintain diverse workplaces.

"That's another major piece," Harvey said. "I run a business school. If Proctor & Gamble continues to run ads on a program like Imus' and comes to my campus to recruit, I can assure you that my students will respond in kind.

"Those employment opportunities will be spurned because they will think that particular company doesn't create an environment in which I want to work."

Also, at most major corporations, women and minorities sit in positions of power previously reserved for white men.

Kenneth Chenault, an African-American, is chairman and chief executive officer of American Express, one of the companies that pulled its ads from MSNBC over Imus. So are Richard Parsons, president of Time Warner, Vernon Jordan, who sits on the boards of numerous major corporations, and Bruce Gordon, a CBS board member and former president of the NAACP.

A day after MSNBC dropped Imus, CBS followed, after Gordon repeatedly called publicly for his dismissal.

Green and others said they think Imus' firing will send a message to others.

"You clearly have had enough change going on that people like Don Imus weren't paying attention to how profound this has become," he said. "This is going to be a wake-up call for a lot of people of how deep the changes have occurred in this society."

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