Advocacy Diversity

PR Lessons from the Lowe’s Advertising Debacle

It seems pretty clear to just about everyone that home improvement giant Lowe’s made a huge public relations gaffe in its recent decision to pull advertising from the show “All-American Muslim” on TLC. The more interesting story may be how and why Lowe’s made such a dumb mistake.

Lowe’s came under pressure from a group called the Florida Family Association (FFA), which doesn’t like the show because, I guess, they think the show portrays Muslims (at least the ones on the show) as normal people and not as crazed jihadists out to destroy America. It’s certainly not new that people with a political ax to grind might try to eradicate support for the people they’re out to get. If that support comes in the form of advertising dollars, they try to pressure the advertisers to drop support.

It doesn’t work very often, usually because advertisers rightly recognize that the investment of advertising dollars pays off, and a small, but vocal, interest group that threatens a “boycott” will either be seen for what it is or be a blip on the media radar.

In this case, FFA won a battle by persuading Lowe’s to pull its ads from “All-American Muslim,” but I wonder if it hasn’t lost the war — not only for itself, but for all interest groups who attempt to use this tactic.

Before this happened, I doubt many people even thought about the fact that Lowe’s advertised on the show — at least to the extent that they may have considered the social or political implications. A few people in Florida may have been upset about it, but I doubt many other people cared one way or the other.

But once Lowe’s dropped the ads, everyone became aware of it, and not in a way that reflects positively on Lowe’s corporate reputation. Rather than just getting complaints from one group of cranks, Lowe’s is now catching heat from all over the place.

The lesson: You bring more trouble on yourself by pulling your ads from a show like this than if you just keep running them … especially when you claim you support diversity.

The next time a group like FFA tries to pressure some company to pull its ads in a similar situation don’t you think that company will be aware of what happened to Lowe’s? Don’t you think they’ll realize they don’t need to invite the same kind of heat?

It’s surprising that Lowe’s would make such a boneheaded PR move, but it happens. Maybe the FFA got in touch with someone internally who was sympathetic to their agenda. Maybe they just caught someone on a bad day, and that person panicked without thinking through the big picture. Clearly, the company’s leadership needs a wake-up call and a set of good consultants.

It’s clear now that if Lowe’s had just ignored FFA, it would have bought itself much less trouble than it has now. I hope Lowe’s won’t cave into to pressure like that again, but in an era where news moves fast and companies often react instead of think, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again.

Ann Willets is president and CEO of Utopia Communications Inc. A version of this post originally ran in the Utopia Communications blog.

2 Comments

  • It strikes me as an unbelievable example of cowardice and a complete and utter lack of values for Lowe’s to abdicate its corporate responsibility in this matter and essentially lay the blame for this inconceivable blunder at its customers feet, e.g., “We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.”

    Leaders lead, and it would have been best if Lowe’s set an example of religious tolerance for others to follow. Instead, through its words and deeds, which included allowing hate-filled rants from the lunatic fringe on its Facebook page, Lowe’s sent a hard-to-miss message of religious intolerance.

    The damage to Lowe’s reputation will not be wished away with mealy-mouthed public pronouncements, and certainly not from sticking its head in the sand and hoping it all blows over. As Arthur Page noted, public relations is 10 percent what you say, and 90 percent what you do, so if I was Lowe’s public relations counsel, I’d be on the phone to Russell Simmons about buying an ad.

    Until then, that Lowe’s Gift Card my sister wants for the holidays? Home Depot, here I come.

  • Great post, Ann!  I am a Lowe’s fan, but this was an incredibly bone-headed move.  You have to wonder how these decisions are made and who’s involved in advising the decision-makers.  It will be interesting to see how Lowe’s is planning to redeem itself after this move!

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