Hallmark Channel's ads kerfuffle shows what happens when a controversial decision based on a company's values meets the wrath of viral social media.
On Sunday night, Hallmark apologized for pulling ads of same-sex couples from wedding website Zola, after previously telling the company that a lesbian couple's public display of affection violated its policies. Criticism of Hallmark's initial decision blew up on Twitter and in the press.
Now Hallmark has the chance to show the world that it's being authentic and not just caving to its attackers. Cindy Gallop, a former ad industry executive and founder of Make Love Not Porn, said the company should actively reach out to LGBTQ filmmakers and screenplay writers and say it's committed to making their movies and promoting their work.
"It's not enough just to reinstate the Zola commercial," said Gallop, an outspoken supporter of diversity and equality in the industry. "This is an opportunity. They could have a huge role to play in really setting the agenda for and spreading the principles of diversity and inclusion to mainstream America."
Hallmark removed the commercials from the Hallmark Channel after One Million Moms, a division of the conservative American Family Association that defines its mission as the "fight against indecency," urged the network not to air advertisements featuring brides kissing.
As a 109-year-old company known for its greeting cards and family-friendly content, that sort of vocal conservative opposition can turn into a business problem. Brad Jakeman, a marketing consultant and former president of PepsiCo's global beverage group, cited a famous quote from Bill Bernbach, the late ad director: "A principle isn't a principle until it costs you money."
But Hallmark has publicly said it's exploring including same-sex couples in content it releases. Last month, Bill Abbott, CEO of Hallmark parent Crown Media Family Networks, told a Hollywood Reporter podcast that the company was "open" to doing movies with gay leads.
"In terms of broadening out the demographic, it's something we're always thinking about, always considering," Abbott said on the podcast. "We'll continue to make the movies where the best scripts are delivered to us."
Hallmark is far from alone as a target for criticism. One Million Moms has been putting brands and publishers on blast for years for promoting or running ads on content it doesn't see as appropriate.
While Hallmark caved to the pressure, other brands have stood their ground.
In 2012, One Million Moms took aim at J.C. Penney for hiring Ellen DeGeneres as its new spokeswoman, saying that she's "not a true representation of the type of families who shop at the retailer" and that "the small percentage of customers they are attempting to satisfy will not offset their loss in sales by offending the majority."
J.C. Penney didn't back down and DeGeneres, who came out as a lesbian 15 years earlier, responded to the backlash in a segment on her show.
"This organization doesn't think I should be the spokesperson because I am gay," she said. "They wanted to get me fired, and I am proud and happy to say that J.C. Penney stuck by their decision to make me their spokesperson."
Consumer praise for J.C. Penney was swift.
"I don't think people like brands that change their mind," said Avi Dan, a veteran of the ad industry and founder and CEO of Avidan Strategies. "People want authenticity in brands."
Jakeman said that Hallmark now needs to make sure it has the mechanisms in place to behave according to values, and not be governed by social media backlash. The company needs to define what it stands for to the public and have the courage to stick to its convictions.
"What you should not do is knee-jerk react to fringe elements of society who don't speak for the vast majority of society, and their views are not consistent with your values," he said.
Because of the attention Hallmark has captured, it has a unique opportunity to change the narrative, according to Gallop.
"This is actually the perfect opportunity for Hallmark to take a complete, utter disaster and turn it into something that will actually benefit everybody, benefit them and benefit their business," she said.
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