Last week, the Hallmark Channel pulled ads for the wedding planning site Zola that featured two brides kissing. Yesterday, it reversed itself. No matter what happened in this episode, Hallmark was going to be at the center of controversy and lose viewers. At that point, you might as well do what you think is right.
How Hallmark pulled the ads
To understand this controversy, you must understand who Hallmark aims its shows at and how important Christmas is to the company. At the Hallmark channel, December is all schmaltz, all the time — a celebration of gushy romantic movies tinged with holiday sparkle. Here’s what the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable said about Hallmark after last Christmas:
On the heels of holiday ratings sensation, “Countdown to Christmas”, Hallmark Channel wrapped up the final months of 2018 as the highest-rated and most-watched cable network for the entire Fourth Quarter among Women 18-49 and Women 25-54. In addition to crushing the cable competition, Hallmark Channel out-performed the broadcast networks on Saturday nights, delivering more Households and Women 25-54 than ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox in the 8-10p time period throughout the nine-week “Countdown to Christmas” run.
The key word in there is “women.” Hallmark cares about women. Men don’t matter. The advertisers don’t care about men, and neither do the people creating the programming. And it worked — women watched a lot of Hallmark last December.
With this in mind, why did Hallmark pull the Zola ads? Here’s what happened and what they said, according to the New York Times:
Asked to explain why the ads had been rejected, an employee of Hallmark’s parent company said the channel did not accept ads “that are deemed controversial,” according to an email exchange shared with The New York Times. A spokesman for Hallmark said the women’s “public displays of affection” violated the channel’s policies, but he declined to comment on why a nearly identical ad featuring a bride and groom kissing was not rejected. . . .
Early this week, One Million Moms, a division of the conservative American Family Association that defines its mission as the “fight against indecency,” published a petition urging Hallmark to “please reconsider airing commercials with same-sex couples.” . . .
On Thursday, Zola was notified that four of the six ads would be pulled. In the email exchange, an ad buyer representing Zola asks for an explanation of the decision.
“We are not allowed to accept creatives that are deemed controversial,” an account representative for Hallmark responded.
The Hallmark Channel spokesman suggested on Friday afternoon that the issue was the couple’s kissing. “The decision not to air overt public displays of affection in our sponsored advertisement, regardless of the participants, is in line with our current policy, which includes not featuring political advertisements, offensive language, R-rated movie content and many other categories,” he said.
“The debate surrounding these commercials on all sides was distracting from the purpose of our network, which is to provide entertainment value.”
Here’s the problem with these statements: you cannot escape the debate surrounding these commercials. Having aired them and pulled them, Hallmark was going to end up in the middle of the debate either way. Somebody was going to call for a boycott, whether it was One Million Moms or LGBT groups.
These statements are equivocal and weak. The part about “public displays of affection” is bizarre, because heterosexual couples kissing are apparently not a problem (in fact, the Hallmark Channel’s main programming has plenty of kissing in it). Kissing isn’t the problem — women kissing women is.
As for “ads that are deemed controversial,” that’s a classic pusillanimous passive. Deemed by whom? “We don’t accept political advertisements” is a clear statement. So is “We don’t accept R-rated ads.” But “controversial” is not a clear-cut attribute. Could I place an ad for HPV vaccination, or would that be controversial? How about an ad for a large, gas-guzzling family SUV? You can’t avoid controversy, and trying to do so is cowardly in the extreme.
Hallmark reverses itself (but not very clearly)
By yesterday, Hallmark’s management had changed its position. Here’s the full statement from its site.
Hallmark Affirms Its Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (December 15, 2019) – Earlier this week, a decision was made at Crown Media Family Networks to remove commercials featuring a same-sex couple.
“The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused. Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision. Our mission is rooted in helping all people connect, celebrate traditions, and be inspired to capture meaningful moments in their lives. Anything that detracts from this purpose is not who we are. We are truly sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused.” said Mike Perry, President and CEO, Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Hallmark is, and always has been, committed to diversity and inclusion – both in our workplace as well as the products and experiences we create. It is never Hallmark’s intention to be divisive or generate controversy. We are an inclusive company and have a track record to prove it. We have LGBTQ greeting cards and feature LGBTQ couples in commercials. We have been recognized as one of the Human Rights Campaigns Best Places to Work, and as one of Forbes America’s Best Employers for Diversity. We have been a progressive pioneer on television for decades – telling wide ranging stories that elevate the human spirit such as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship, both of which highlight the importance of tolerance and understanding.
Hallmark will be working with GLAAD to better represent the LGBTQ community across our portfolio of brands. The Hallmark Channel will be reaching out to Zola to reestablish our partnership and reinstate the commercials.
“Across our brand, we will continue to look for ways to be more inclusive and celebrate our differences.” Perry said.
This statement is still weaker than it ought to be. It also starts with a passive: “a decision was made at Crown Media Family Networks to remove commercials featuring a same-sex couple.” (Who made it?) And “The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused,” is evasive. Who cares if you’ve been agonizing? Who cares if the hurt was unintentional? Whatever decision you make, somebody is going to be upset. Own it.
But here’s what it comes down to. Hallmark is going to lose conservative viewers over this decision. (It will be a segment on Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham — count on it.) I predict a Trump tweet criticizing Hallmark, since the president never misses a chance to bash somebody in the culture war.
But if the decision had been left as it was before, Hallmark would also lose viewers. I’m not talking about lesbians — I doubt that they make up much of the channels current audience. I’m talking about women who have a problem with discrimination against lesbians.
Ask yourself this question: In ten years, how many women will identify as lesbians, bisexual, or supportive of gay and lesbian couples? And how many will say they are offended by lesbian relationships and kissing?
I’m guess there will be more of the former than the latter.
Hallmark’s decision, tentative as it is, to support tolerance and diversity is likely to be the right decision in the long term.
When you’re in the crosshairs of a controversy, there is no middle ground. You may as well do the thing you think is right. Some people will still hate you, regardless, but at least you’ll still be left with some integrity and self-respect.