Do you have a legal obligation to speak well of your advertisers?

Don Imus
Radio Personality Don Imus

A few days ago radio personality (and I use that word loosely) Don Imus was sued by an advertiser for voicing their adverts on air, but also making disparaging comments about the company too. It was widely reported in traditional media – indeed, I bumped into it on USA Today’s story – but I have seen almost no commentary about it here in the blogosphere.
The company suing Imus is Flatsigned Press Inc. and it is related to their promotion of The Warren Report on John F. Kennedy’s Assassination, written by, and signed by, former President Gerald R. Ford, who was one of the members of the original commission.
On his show, Don Imus sarcastically needled that the publishers “have been waiting for (Ford) to croak so they can unload these (books)”, said that the ads were cheesy and then even made fun of the company name itself: “Now that he’s flatLINED, you go to”
At some level, the lawsuit is groundless because one presumes that the company knew in advance that Don Imus has made his reputation and built up a tremendous listenership by being a jerk, by being critical, sarcastic, rude, hostile, and racist. This is the same Don Imus who was fired from the lax CBS Radio Network for making some idiotic comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. If you ask a racist ass to promote your product, you should be prepared for them to have their vitriol spill over and taint your company, product or service too.
Nonetheless, I think that it’s interesting to consider the ramifications of whether there is an obligation or social contract between the advertiser and the publisher, whether there’s any sort of explicit relationship between me and the advertisers that pick my site for an advertising venue? And what if there’s an intermediary, an advertising network like b5media or even AdSense?
So spin this scenario out, dear blogging colleague: you add an AdSense block to your weblog and continue to write pointed, occasionally critical commentary about your industry, then a merchant who kinda-sorta gets how online advertising works buys some clicks through AdWords and is horrified to have a customer tell them that you were slamming the company while they were paying for their advertisement to appear on that very page!
Scary scenario?
I am the last person to defend someone like Don Imus, but I do think that there’s a very gray area that we’re all going to have to face if Flatsigned Press were to win this lawsuit.
What do you think?

3 comments on “Do you have a legal obligation to speak well of your advertisers?

  1. Dave,
    I think you are right in that they already knew who Imus was and his tendencies. And #2, the lawsuit creates lots of buzz and additional awareness (X times the paid ads did by themselves) of the book.
    Result: 1. They will sell way more books after the law suit announcement than before. 2. They will “settle” the suit with Imus quietly and out of court with low-to-no attorney involvement.
    But then, I’m a consumer company cynic, a CCC as it were.

  2. It is amazing to me that intelligent people can be so wrong and not see the real issues here, not even the facts.
    The Imus controversy with the Rutgers Basketball team was AFTER the non-controversy with my company FlatSigned. I had no idea, although I was a listener of the Imus show, that Imus would be willing to insult a recently deceased USA President and an advertiser. Plus, Imus lied. Are you saying that a broadcaster has the right to take money to do one thing, not do that plus lie? I hope not. THAT would be indicative of bad things to come….no ad dollars period. Imus said this company waited until Ford “croaked” before we pushed the book. We had pushed the book for years prior to Imus’ breach of contract. Plus, sales went from great to zero after Imus. Hits at the website went way up but zero sales. Zero sales have come from all this “attention” to the lawsuit as well. Imus bragged that he had power in the book publishing and book retail industry. I can attest to the fact that he does/did. Gerald Ford’s final book was selling 10-50k each day in dollars. After Imus it went almost to zero. That number has not gone up with this “attention”. It is NOT true that any advertising is good advertising and if you knew what you were talking about, you would know that simple truth. Plus, Ford knew he was going to die. He and I worked on this project when Ford was in his 90’s. He loved this book. He gifted copies to people in the White House and world leaders. He came back to me for more once he had gifted his 100 free copies. My point here is that Ford was not taken advantage of and only Imus failed to play his proper role, that of what he says he is great at: hawking books. My mistake was trusting Imus.
    Tim Miller, President
    FlatSigned Press, Inc.

  3. What a great question. I’d like to comment:
    Rather than comment directly to your point; i.e.: your obligation to an advertiser choosing to buy ad space from you, I�d ask you to consider the nature of the relationship between the advertiser and the any media outlet.
    An ad-buy is typically one part of a larger commercial contract. In return for payment, the advertiser is entitled to use space or airtime to promote his goods or services.
    As I�m sure your aware, there are three key elements to the creation of any contract: the offer, the acceptance and (the part I appreciate the most) the consideration. And as with any commercial contract, both sides have rights.
    For instance, few people would seriously suggest that the rights granted under an advertising contract extend to allowing the advertiser to publish offensive or disparaging remarks about the media outlet and/or owner, or to denigrate the medium itself.
    Who then would suggest that a media employee (performer/on-air personality), after entering into a good-faith agreement from an advertiser – having accepted compensation from that advertiser, can be justified in making offensive or disparaging remarks about the advertiser�s goods and/or services?
    Am I correct in interpreting your remarks as a defense of this position?
    I�ll make the argument all day long that any media owner has the right to refuse to carry any advertisement that they deem misleading or offensive but once an advertiser�s offer is accepted, and money changes hands, they shouldn�t be free to trash the advertiser.
    If you want to print negative or disparaging remarks about a company, don�t ask that company to pay for the ink� unless you get sued.

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