News & Politics

Bigoted Conservative Fringe Group Pressures Advertisers of Program Featuring Law-Abiding Muslims

Why did advertisers listen to an inarticulate, bigoted campaign by a fringe Christian group? And can online activism turn the tables?

Image copyright: TLC/Discovery Communications
Photo Credit: Courtesy TLC/Discovery Communications

[This story is updated below]

Conservative groups like Focus on the Family and culturally conservative groups like the Parents Television Council, specialists in hand-wringing over so-called cultural decay, have often wielded letter-writing campaigns and public shaming to punish television networks and shows for "immoral" content.

And now a new group is behind the push to punish a show about Muslims for not being bigoted enough.

Why do these groups have so much power?

For years, right-wingers have exerted an undue influence on the television landscape, particularly as that landscape relates to female sexuality. A prime example of this? Until plotlines on Grey's Anatomy and Friday Night Lights this past year, every story line on television that would logically lead to an abortion has miraculously ended in miscarriage or a change of heart at the clinic. While this trope is so common it's a pop-culture joke, there's a serious threat  — the threat of an engineered uprising from "concerned" groups like the above  — that keeps realistic abortion scenes from being depicted. 

Still, with those two aforementioned brave abortion episodes airing to less controversy than expected, it has felt recently like maybe, just maybe, the tide was turning. Racy shows like Gossip Girl even embraced the criticism and used it for advertising campaigns.

But never underestimate the ability of even somewhat progressive culture to goose the fearmongers: when it comes to perpetuating their worldview on television, extreme right-wing groups still have muscle to flex. How else to explain the fact that dozens of major companies promptly pulled their ads from TLC's innocuous new reality showAll-American Muslim, thanks to an extremist Christian group's concern about its depiction of the titular citizens living normal lives in front of the lens?

Apparently episodes about Muslims in Dearborn, Mich., doing frothy things like planning weddings, sending their kids off to school, and occasionally facing discrimination was so offensive to the Florida Family Association (whose mission is to "educate people on what they can do to defend, protect, and promote traditional, biblical values") that this fringe group launched an energetic email campaign targeting advertisers. And according to a statement they gave the Washington Post, the campaign worked:

The FFA contends that 65 of 67 companies it has targeted have pulled their ads, including Bank of America, Campbell Soup Co., Dell, Estee Lauder, General Motors, Goodyear, Green Mountain Coffee, McDonalds, Sears, and Walmart.

This claim is disturbing, and certainly true of at least some of the listed companies, which apparently pulled out without a whiff of protest (it should be noted, however, that at least one of the companies the FFA claimed to have swayed away from advertising on the show denied it to the Post).

The reason the FFA objected to the show? It didn't show any terrorists. Really: "The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish." In perhaps one of the most poorly worded press releasesI've ever encountered, the group continues, "Many situations were profiled in the show from a Muslim-tolerant perspective while avoiding the perspective that would have created Muslim conflict, thereby contradicting The Learning Channel’s agenda to inaccurately portray Muslims in America." Umm, what? With fail-proof logic like this, it's obvious why dozens of advertisers agreed to pull their advertising — not.

In fact, the inarticulate, illogical, and at-base bigoted campaign makes it all the more shameful that any of the listed companies even considered bowing to such pathetic pressure. But Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back, the definitive book on the politics of reality TV, says this move on the part of advertisers is totally unsurprising because of the unhealthy relationship between corporations and the content of much of the reality TV genre and TV in general.

"It's bigoted, but it isn't surprising. Advertisers have had undue influence over media content for decades. Sometimes that means direct censorship in the form of 'If you want our cash, you can't report this news story about CEO compensation, or air that sitcom or drama about abortion or gay youth,'" she says, explaining why progressive content on even scripted TV can be hard to push through.

But in reality TV, the category to which All-American Muslim belongs, this problem of influence goes even further, with direct coordination between conglomerates and content-makers.

"Reality TV has given corporations the impression that it is within an advertiser's rights to have media content crafted to suit their whims," Pozner says. Advertisers get to "collaborate from the get-go with reality producers and networks to help determine which reality shows will get green-lit, which kinds of people will be cast versus excluded, how story arcs will be crafted and edited, and ultimately to help define 'reality' TV's overarching narratives and underlying ideology."

Reality TV, in fact, is seen by many to be a big commercial: "A huge percentage of reality shows are just 3-D versions of the lifestyle ideas presented forever in print ads and TV commercials," Pozner says.

So a show such as All-American Muslim, which is actually educational and not designed for product placement or bolstering sales, wouldn't be seen as a valuable territory by advertisers, and the outcry caused by FFA's letter-writing campaign might be seen as tainting a sponsoring company's brand.

Furthermore, Pozner says, "Corporations are often bigoted."

While many of the companies FFA is claiming to have complied with its request are huge (and some, like Green Mountain Coffee and Estee Lauder, have at least nominally progressive histories), one company has become the lightning rod for this argument. Home improvement behemoth Lowe's — after publicly admitting to pulling its advertising from the show — found itself targeted by everyone from hip-hop mogul (and Occupy supporter) Russell Simmons to 10,000 Facebook followers.

“This is a press nightmare for them,” Simmons told EW's Popwatch. “This country is built on religious freedom. This is the kind of hate that tears this country apart.”

After an initial outcry over its actions, Lowe's has backtracked slightly with a "We're sorry if you were offended" type apology, ("If we have made anyone question that commitment, we apologize.") But the furor is continuing to brew.

And this may be the most hopeful sign that while the right wing may still try to wield influence to some success, at least the Internet can act as a sort of backstop for the insanity. Now, after all, a politician is threatening a Lowe's boycott, 13,000 Facebook commentson the company's psuedo-apology, and most declaring it to be bigoted, while a new, fast-growing online petition at Signon.org is directed at the CEOs of all the companies named by FFA. At some point, Lowe's may have to backtrack even further to avoid really having a bad brand.

But perhaps the best thing that can come out of this, as several other bloggers have noted today, is that ratings for the show may improve. AsLA Times critic Robert Lloyd, giving the program a tepidly positive review, noted, "The show does explode the lazy notion that Muslim life is at all homogenous or unchanging." This aspect of the show so threatening to the FFA may get to influence a wider audience thanks to its manufactured controversy. The masses of progressive people on the Internet are proving to be a good watchdog against these so-called "watchdog" groups.

But until the pervasive influence of corporate cash over content wanes, scandals like this will keep occurring, and our programming will suffer as a result.

Below, watch an interview with the cast members about Islamophobia in America conducted by Al-Jazeera:

 

UPDATES, 12/13:

--The petition against Lowe's is now at over 20,000 signatures, and gaining steam. From Signon.org:

A petition created at SignOn.org to Lowe's Home Improvement in response to reports that the company pulled its advertising from the TLC reality show All-American Muslim is gaining steam online and has garnered over 20,000 signatures. You can see the SignOn petition, which has been signed by several celebrities, including Kal Penn and Russell Simmons here: http://signon.org/sign/defend-our-american-values

--Simmons has also agreed to buy advertising on the show himself.

--And on Countdown last night, Maysoon Zayid poked fun at the controversy and described trying to call Lowe's to complain:

 

 

--Meanwhile on Twitter, the Parents Television Council has objected to this story's "lumping" the culturally conservative group in with extremist religious groups. It's true that the nature of the complaints leveled by this powerful lobbying group are not the same as the FFA. Still, the group's emphasis on handwringing and targeting all sexual content instead of just exploitative sexual content, makes me feel comfortable describing them as part of the overall problematic landscape.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter at sarahmseltzer.com.