When Should Advertisers Bail on TV Shows?

When is a television show too controversial?

That is a question constantly asked by advertisers, who at times must make the difficult and potentially risky decision to pull their sponsorship from a show.

The choice is often a balancing act. No advertiser wants to be associated with a hateful show, but at the same time, an advertiser doesn't want to risk offending viewers by pulling their ads.

Sometimes advertisers create firestorms with the content of their ads, but that's a different story.

The latest advertising flap occurred this week, when two large companies decided not to advertise on Black Entertainment Television's "Hot Ghetto Mess," a show that premieres later this month.

So far, only Home Depot and State Farm Insurance Cos. have passed on the program, but their hesitance has renewed the debate over when it is or is not appropriate to drop sponsorship.

The six-episode series is to be hosted by comedian Charlie Murphy from Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show." It is based on the Web site hotghettomess.com, which features in-your-face postings — a recent submission was captioned "Small Penis? Ladies Have Some Compassion?"

One of its biggest draws is the outrageous photos sent in by viewers, mostly of black men and women in hairstyles and clothing stereotypically linked to the ghetto.

Murphy's agent, Richard J. Murphy, questioned why advertisers were targeting his client's show and not others that often push the line.

"How come no one is pulling ads from 'Maury Povich' and 'Jerry Springer,' which have exploited negative images [of black people] five days a week for years," Murphy told the New York Post.

Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for State Farm, said his company "never had any intention of having our ads on that show."

He said State Farm routinely screened all programs to decide whether or not to advertise on them. If a show contains sexually excessive content, violence or if it degrades people, the company will choose not to sponsor it.

When asked what other shows besides "Hot Ghetto Mess" State Farm had passed on, Engerman said there were none in recent memory.

In a statement, Home Depot said one of its ads was "inadvertently placed by BET.com next to a promo for the show."

"Such placement of the Home Depot banner was never approved by Home Depot," the company said in a statement. "This has resulted in some confusion. The Home Depot is neither a sponsor nor has it committed advertising to this program."

Home Depot and State Farm sponsor other programs on BET and said they plan to continue that relationship.

Two advertisers rejecting a show is likely not enough to lead to any type of cancellation. But if advertisers leave a show en masse, they can have a significant impact.

In April, radio host Don Imus made a racial slur about the Rutgers women's basketball team. He lost his job after advertiser upon advertiser bailed on his show.

Sheri Broyles, a professor of advertising at the University of North Texas, said that the marketplace typically will sort out these types of issues.

If viewers find the material offensive, she said, they will change the channel or shut off their TV. Without strong ratings, shows will be pulled off the air.

Likewise, if someone clearly crosses a line, Broyles said, advertisers will bail and a show will be canceled like Imus' show, for example.

"What he said about the Rutgers women's basketball team was stupid, but I don't want some government agency telling him or you or me that we can't say something, even if it is stupid," Broyles said. "On the other hand, sponsors have every right not to choose to support him. In the Imus case, the marketplace stepped up and said that it wasn't right, and he was gone from both radio and TV."

In 2004, several advertisers pulled their sponsorships from the FX show "Nip/Tuck" after consumers complained the program was too raunchy. Cingular Wireless, Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., Gateway and Ben & Jerry's all dropped their ads. Regardless, other sponsors remained and the show remains on the air.

A two-part miniseries by CBS called "The Reagans," based on the former president and his wife, took heat from conservatives who considered the show unfair to the couple. They persuaded advertisers to drop their support. The show was moved off network TV and ran on Showtime to a much smaller audience.

One of the most heated advertising fights occurred in 1997 over ABC's sitcom "Ellen," starring Ellen DeGeneres. On a springtime episode, the show's main character came out as a lesbian. High-profile advertisers such as Wendy's and Chrysler pulled their spots from the show, but others stayed.

The episode was the highest-rated show on ABC that year. The advertisers who bailed lost out on a giant audience.

Broyles said there had also been cases in which advertisers supported a show once it had proven itself after a season or two.

When "NYPD Blue" first aired, she said, at least one ABC affiliate didn't advertise the first season, saying the show was too controversial. After it won success in the ratings and with critics, the company picked up the show.

"I sometimes wish that TV networks would step up and produce higher-quality programming rather than just pandering to the lowest common denominator of quick ratings," Broyles said.

Ultimately, she said: "Every TV has an off button."