Why A&E Will Lose the Battle Over "Duck Dynasty"

You get what you pay for, as the saying goes, and while cable network A&E has been ringing the register with its Duck Dynasty TV show, its response to comments made by its biggest star in an interview with GQ magazine regarding homosexuality and race relations in the 1960s could soon have it coming up "No Sale." It misjudged where the public's loyalties stand and unleashed a backlash that management never anticipated.

Source: A&E.

Phil Robertson inartfully expressed a tenet of faith that said homosexuality was a sin (he also included adultery, drinking, greed, and other, well, "sinful" behaviors), but also said it was not for him to judge. He also said he didn't witness any mistreatment of blacks while growing up during the 1960s. The perceived incendiary nature of his comments caused the cable TV channel jointly owned by Hearst and Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ABC Television Group to first condemn his views then put him on "indefinite hiatus" from filming the show. It now risks losing its most lucrative property, a show that is watched weekly by 14 million people and will generate for A&E an estimated $885 million in total revenue this year. And for companies that blindly followed the cable channel's lead -- restaurant chain Cracker Barrel (NASDAQ: CBRL  ) , for example, said it was pulling certain Duck Dynasty merchandise from its store shelves because it might be deemed offensive -- it creates a public relations nightmare.

Across social media, Robertson's supporters are waging campaigns that have generated millions of "likes" on Facebook, spread hashtags like #StandWithPhil across Twitter, and coalesced into a "boycott A&E" movement. Cracker Barrel was so inundated with comments, posts, and emails objecting to its action that just two days after announcing it was pulling inventory from shelves it reversed course and said it would put them back out.

There seems to be a difference between this cultural conflict and others that have sparked similar corporate hand-wringing, such as celebrity chef Paula Deen admitting to having used racial epithets some 30 years ago or even Tiger Woods' philandering. Robertson was expressing deeply held religious beliefs, like the CEO of Chick-fil-A who was hounded after he expressed personal opposition to gay marriage or the chairman of pasta maker Barilla who said "the concept of the sacred family remains one of the fundamental values of the company." Robertson's seeming blindness to the mistreatment of blacks in the pre-Civil Rights-era Louisiana in which he grew up also didn't endear him to those who said it amounted to "revisionist history."

But unlike previous controversies, it seems A&E is the one coming out on the losing side. Deen lost a book deal, was dropped by Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) and Target, and ultimately lost her Food Network TV show. Woods lost his sponsorship relationships with Accenture, Procter & Gamble's Gillette, and PepsiCo's Gatorade (though Nike did stand by him).

Like the failed boycotts against the chicken sandwich maker and the pasta maker, Robertson has seen his sponsors stand by him. Truck suspension manufacturer Skyjacker was the first to publicly state its support; it was soon followed by Under Armour (NYSE: UA  ) , which said that although it disagrees with his views it will continue sponsoring the show. Wal-Mart, which said at its annual meeting that the show's graphic T-shirts are its best-selling items, reports Duck Dynasty merchandise is selling out now as supporters buy up the gear. The retailer accounts for about half of the show's $400 million or so in annual merchandise sales, carrying hundreds of DD items across some 2,800 stores.

Whereas Wal-Mart originally pounced on the Deen contretemps and dumped the chef, the discount giant has remained mum about Robertson, which in this instance might serve it well. So long as companies choose to develop relationships with celebrities and entertainers living in the public eye, scandals will happen. Here, though, the Robertsons are not manufactured celebrities; they are a successful family by dint of building a duck-hunting business from the ground up without apparently compromising their faith or values. 

That may be a foreign concept to producers used to dealing with reality TV stars like the Kardashians and the Housewives, individuals who seem willing to do or say anything for their 15 minutes of fame, but it's one that resonates with large swaths of the country. Corporations can support causes they believe in, such as General Mills has by tackling large social issues with marketing encouraging a more inclusive society, but can do so without silencing the right of others to express their opposing views.

It's a consideration the show's sponsors are undoubtedly carefully considering, and indicates why A&E loses this cultural war. 

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