When Media Matters launched in 2004, it published online articles criticizing Bill O'Reilly for allegations of sexual harassment. The blog posts helped turn the liberal watchdog group into a potent thorn on the side of conservative pundits, but they ultimately failed to stop O'Reilly as a star host of
Thirteen years later and facing numerous similar allegations, O'Reilly is out of his job.
There's no single reason the ouster campaign proved successful this time: It could have been the critical press coverage, the thousands of posts in years since about O’Reilly on the Media Matters website and others like it, or simply the sheer number of accusers whose allegations went public. But one key difference is the digital strategy that activists, Media Matters among many, used to target O'Reilly's employer,
"You had very organized efforts, a very broad social media outcry from individuals, and enormous press coverage," said Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at ad agency MindShare. "All those things put pressure on brands to ask themselves, 'Is this really a safe environment for us?'"
The result: dozens of advertisers pulling their ads in the weeks before O'Reilly was dismissed.
Among the new groups pushing to get O'Reilly fired was Sleeping Giants, an anonymous organization said to be run by marketing professionals that previously focused on getting advertisers to cut ties with the conservative website Breitbart News.
"This campaign was started to combat bigotry. Do revelations about Bill O'Reilly warrant a Sleeping Giants action?" the group asked.
The response was an overwhelming "yes." By the next day, April 4, the group tweeted to its tens of thousands of followers a checklist for action. There was a list of O'Reilly's advertisers, shared via Google Docs, at whom to tweet and an onslaught of "Bill O'Reilly facts" lifted from news reports to be shared.
"Wendy Walsh, a guest on O'Reilly's show, has said that O'Reilly declined to make her a contributor to his show after rebuffing his sexual advances," one of them read.
"They jumped in and applied pressure," Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, said of Sleeping Giants and other activist organizations. "They were like super volunteers."
Though many advertisers simply moved their spots to other Fox News programs, O'Reilly's dismissal showed the activists that a savvy social media strategy directed at advertisers can bring about rapid change that was once unthinkable. Getting the word out on Twitter and Facebook proved a worthy substitute for the painstaking task of recruiting activists and supporters for protests or calling and picketing companies.
"It used to be the case a successful activist had to have a social movement organization; think of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that was led by Martin Luther King Jr.," said Brayden King, a professor of management and an expert on social movements at Northwestern University.
"The power from that came from membership and the charisma of the leader," King continued. "Today, you don't need either of those things as much. You need a way to create a lot of attention. So many successful activist groups have a very savvy PR arm and a social media strategy."
Sleeping Giants launched after the November election to combat racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in the news by targeting media companies' revenue source. Its tactic isn't new: Activist video gamers persuaded Intel and Mercedes-Benz to pull ads from sites including Gamasutra and Gawker in 2014. But it says its efforts have proven successful before, helping pressure hundreds of advertisers to flee Breitbart News.
Their mission has been aided by liberal groups such as ThinkProgress and Media Matters, which has not only targeted advertisers for O’Reilly, but also sponsors of former Fox host
"We were one of many that took part" in pressuring O'Reilly's advertisers, said an organizer of Sleeping Giants, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect what the source said was a job in the marketing industry. "We can take some of the credit, but not all of it."
The organizer, who declined to say where the group was located and spoke from an unlisted number, also credited other groups for pressuring O'Reilly's sponsors, including Grab Your Wallet, which calls for a boycott of Trump businesses; UltraViolet, a group that promotes women's rights and fights sexism; and Color of Change, which advocates for justice in black communities. The three groups boast tens of the thousands of followers on Twitter.
Targeting advertisers can be more effective than calling for consumer boycotts, which are far trickier given the need for broad support and the habitual relationship consumers have with brands, King said.
Fast food chain Chick-fil-A saw sales soar in 2012 despite a backlash triggered by its president coming out against same-sex marriage. A push to boycott Target because it supported allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice hit the company's sales, but did not succeed in reversing the retailer's stance.
Moreover, there's a preaching to the choir quality to some campaigns, such as when PETA calls for a boycott of KFC.
"People that support the activists aren't traditionally consumers of the brands being boycotted," King said. "No member of PETA goes to KFC anyway."
Sleeping Giants said it was easier focusing on O'Reilly's show because he had dozens of identifiable advertisers to target. In the case of Breitbart, some brands don't even realize their ads were appearing on the site because of the complicated nature of algorithmic online ad placement.
Carusone of Media Matters said the O'Reilly campaign resonated because critics of the TV host went after his conduct rather than just comments. People expect O'Reilly to be provocative, he said, but many won't stand for allegations of serial sexual harassment.
"Some people say outrageous stuff and it becomes a massive controversy," Carusone said. "But even with the initial flare up, it will dissipate, especially if that commentary is part of the business model."
Media Matters' involvement in the campaign to pressure O'Reilly's advertisers was cited as evidence of a left-wing conspiracy to topple the conservative news host, who maintains the allegations of misconduct against him are unfounded. O'Reilly is leaving Fox with a $25 million payout, equal to a year's salary.
The Sleeping Giants organizer said his group is self-funded and unaffiliated with Media Matters. The group has more than 88,000 followers on Twitter, has been in touch with advertisers and media buyers through back channels, but said the drive to pressure O'Reilly's advertisers came from supporters speaking out on social media. He said the group felt its influence grow exponentially with each new follower.
"The reach is just bananas," he said. "Getting one more follower could mean reaching 100 or 1,000 more people because the network gets bigger and bigger."