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Aug 21, 2011 • By

Our advertising decisions

You can’t believe everything you read. Nowhere is that more true than on the Internet and on Twitter.

As you may have read, General Mills is not a sponsor of the television program “Pretty Little Liars.”

Last week, we received an inquiry expressing concern about the sexual orientation of characters on “Pretty Little Liars.” We responded that the program is not one that we sponsor.

An organization posted our response online, under the headline: “General Mills says NO to Pretty Little Liars Lesbian Content.”

That is and was incorrect.

As we have explained to bloggers all weekend, the sexual orientation of characters was not a factor in our decision. General Mills does not make advertising placement decisions based on the sexual orientation of characters. Nor was our decision the result of external pressure from any group.

We made our decision based on audience demographics. We also considered program content, which has evolved into areas such as stalking and student-teacher relationships. The sexual orientation of characters on the program wasn’t a factor. But that hasn’t stopped a stream of angry tweets.

What’s the right thing to do in an instance like this?

We re-contacted the group that made the original inquiry. We explained our decision again.

We’ve spoken to bloggers and online media. Most have posted our comment verbatim, and have been quite fair. Some have chided us. Some have questioned our veracity. But at least they’ve printed our comment.

Reasonable voices have been reasonable – cautioning that things may not be what they appear. More strident voices have been harsh, dismissing the facts as “lies.”

What we’ve said is the truth. General Mills doesn’t make advertising placement decisions based on the sexual orientation of characters. We didn’t in this instance. We haven’t in others.

But will it matter?

I am often the point person on such questions, and I could certainly share with you explanations for why we are not an advertiser on some programs and why we continue to advertise on others.

Unfortunately, the world is now a place where the truth isn’t always believed, especially on the Internet.

The conundrum is that the best place to respond and explain… is probably on the Internet and Twitter.

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  • Rockie Soul

    Thank You for this comment. I would STILL like FFA to take down a post you say is untrue.
    This post could fuel bigortry towards gay and lesbian youth. I will re-tweet this post and I hope you make a STRONG effort in the future to denounce any organization that promotes bigotry and intolerance.

    • http://blog.generalmills.com Tom Forsythe

      As I explained, the Florida Family Association misinterpreted our decision, because we didn’t explain our reasoning. That’s on us. When we explained in a second email, to their credit, Florida Family Association changed their website.

      Tom Forsythe
      General Mills
      (Editor’s note: This comment, from Aug. 22, was reposted to fix a reformatting issue) 

  • http://www.blog.generalmills.com/ Tom Forsythe

    Rockie Soul,

    As I explained, the Florida Family Association misinterpreted our decision, because we didn’t explain our reasoning. That’s on us. When we explained in a second email, to their credit, Florida Family Association changed their website.

  • Larry Newman

    When I read the FFA’s headline you are referring to, I was in utter disbelief. So much so, that I wrote to your Director of Consumer Services, Jeff Hagen, to chime in and voice my dismay. General Mills’ record on LGBT is flawless, according to the HRC, and I was baffled by your alleged decision to pull advertising because of gay content. After reading your post, and also receiving an email from Mr. Hagen explaining the truth about this situation, I am convinced that the FFA is a radical organization, promoting a hateful, unacceptable agenda. This begs the question, why doesn’t General Mills sue the FFA for libel? This sort of nonsense can affect GM’s revenue!

    • http://blog.generalmills.com Tom Forsythe

      Mistakes were made, but they were our mistakes. We did not explain in our Aug. 16 response to the Florida Family Association our reasoning, and we should have. We should have said: “While this is not a program that we sponsor, the sexual orientation of characters was not a factor in our decision.” We might have then gone on to explain the audience and content changes that were behind our decision, but we didn’t – because we were trying to avoid being viewed as critical of the show.

      The Florida Family Association didn’t alter documents or lie or libel. They only misinterpreted that our decision was in response to their request, understandably, because we didn’t tell them that it wasn’t. That’s on us. We created the opportunity for misunderstanding by not explaining ourselves. When we did, to their credit, Florida Family Association changed their website.

      Omitting key details and leaving ourselves open to misinterpretation is not grounds for a lawsuit. It’s just an unfortunate mistake. And the mistake was ours.

      Tom Forsythe
      General Mills
      (Editor’s note: This comment, from Aug. 22, was reposted to fix a reformatting issue) 

  • http://www.blog.generalmills.com/ Tom Forsythe

    Larry,

    Mistakes were made, but they were our mistakes. We did not explain in our Aug. 16 response to the Florida Family Association our reasoning, and we should have. We should have said: “While this is not a program that we sponsor, the sexual orientation of characters was not a factor in our decision.” We might have then gone on to explain the audience and content changes that were behind our decision, but we didn’t – because we were trying to avoid being viewed as critical of the show.

    The Florida Family Association didn’t alter documents or lie or libel. They only misinterpreted that our decision was in response to their request, understandably, because we didn’t tell them that it wasn’t. That’s on us. We created the opportunity for misunderstanding by not explaining ourselves. When we did, to their credit, Florida Family Association changed their website.

    Omitting key details and leaving ourselves open to misinterpretation is not grounds for a lawsuit. It’s just an unfortunate mistake. And the mistake was ours.

  • Lexy

    I missed all of the commotion but wanted to say thanks for your decision. I stopped watching the show a while ago-

  • Denise DeSio

    It would be very easy to prove that you’re telling the truth by citing other programming with gay and lesbian content that you HAVE sponsored. Well?

    • http://blog.generalmills.com Tom Forsythe

      It would – but we decided against it. Here’s why.

      As I wrote in my blog post, I am often the guy who answers such questions, and I have defended our decisions to continue advertising on programs that feature gay or lesbian characters or talent on multiple occasions. I just felt the best thing here was not to draw other shows into the spotlight.

      It would be like helping ourselves by pulling others into the fire – it just didn’t seem right. Some other advertiser out there might decide just to avoid controversy and not advertise on a program I might name. So the thought of saying, “Hey, we advertise on XX, and that program has gay characters,” did occur to us. We just felt other programs should not be drawn into this, even if we might have helped ourselves by doing so. I made that decision – and I hope I’m right. Because I did take a pretty easy explanation off the table.

      General Mills has been a stand up player for more than 140 years, and we try to manage with the next 140 years in mind. We’ll take our lumps on this. We mishandled it. We deserve it.

      Some will never forgive us, we know. But some will see our ads on another of these programs – and they’ll realize that what we have said is true.

      Tom Forsythe
      General Mills
      (Editor’s note: This comment, from Aug. 22, was reposted to fix a reformatting issue)

  • Tony

    Interesting post, but you seem to left out one little point:

    From one of the news stories:

    “The FFA published an email from GM’s Director of Consumer Services Jeff Hagen, which read, ‘We have investigated this matter and confirmed that our advertising did air as you have reported. We have informed ABC Family Channel and our agencies that Pretty Little Liars is not a program that we will sponsor. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.’ ”

    If this is true, it kind of takes the wind out of your sails a little, doesn’t it? This is your DCS speaking, in the media. You might want to explain this away now.

    • http://blog.generalmills.com Tom Forsythe

      It can’t be explained away. Unfortunately, our first response didn’t explain our reasoning. If we had, this whole situation might have been far different. What we should have said was: “While this is not a program that we sponsor, the sexual orientation of the characters was not a factor in our decision.” But we didn’t – and I wish we had.

      Tom Forsythe
      General Mills
      (Editor’s note: This comment, from Aug. 22, was reposted to fix a reformatting isue) 

  • http://www.blog.generalmills.com/ Tom Forsythe

    Denise,

    It would – but we decided against it. Here’s why.

    As I wrote in my blog post, I am often the guy who answers such questions, and I have defended our decisions to continue advertising on programs that feature gay or lesbian characters or talent on multiple occasions. I just felt the best thing here was not to draw other shows into the spotlight.
    It would be like helping ourselves by pulling others into the fire – it just didn’t seem right. Some other advertiser out there might decide just to avoid controversy and not advertise on a program I might name.

    So the thought of saying, “Hey, we advertise on XX, and that program has gay characters,” did occur to us. We just felt other programs should not be drawn into this, even if we might have helped ourselves by doing so. I made that decision – and I hope I’m right. Because I did take a pretty easy explanation off the table.

    General Mills has been a stand up player for more than 140 years, and we try to manage with the next 140 years in mind. We’ll take our lumps on this. We mishandled it. We deserve it.
    Some will never forgive us, we know. But some will see our ads on another of these programs – and they’ll realize that what we have said is true.

  • http://www.blog.generalmills.com/ Tom Forsythe

    Tony,

    It can’t be explained away. Unfortunately, our first response didn’t explain our reasoning. If we had, this whole situation might have been far different. What we should have said was: “While this is not a program that we sponsor, the sexual orientation of the characters was not a factor in our decision.” But we didn’t – and I wish we had.

  • Donna

    I spoke with your hotline on the 18th and received a very nice email from you over the weekend, one very similar in wording to the above message regarding your advertising policy.

    However, we need more information about this because it still looks like you may be just trying to clean up for Jeff Hagen’s actions — after the fact. People make mistakes, so if that’s true in Jeff’s case, just say so, okay?

    Was the 16 Aug 2011 email (copy below) posted on FFA’s website real or doctored? Was this email from Jeff Hagen truly in response to FFA’s request to stop advertising Ole El Paso ads on “Pretty Little Liars” as FFA alluded — based on lesbian content? Or was it a response to a different email entirely? Please specifically confirm or deny the correspondence that took place with these alleged two emails.

    —– Original Message —–

    From: “Jeff Hagen”

    To: “davidcaton”

    Sent: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 10:07 AM

    Subject: RE: Ole El Paso advertised during Pretty Little Liars

    Dear David,

    We have investigated this matter and confirmed that our advertising did air as you have reported. We have informed ABC Family Channel and our agencies that Pretty Little Liars is not a program that we will sponsor.

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

    Best Regards,

    Jeff Hagen Director, Consumer Services General Mills

  • Paula Thomas

    I’ve been following this story from the UK. I have to say the idea of an advertiser not advertising in a break in, say, Coronation Street, which has covered the same themes many times and is about to have a lesbian love triangle, or EastEnders (likewise covered all the themes) would be unthinkable.

    I am afraid this looks like homophobia to me.

  • lee witoszkin

    This weekend I really was surprised and pleased to have Jeff Hagen reply to my email on my comments regarding the criticism of lesbian portrayal on PPL. He clarified GM’s position on the advertising on PPL and made it clear that it was not this portrayal which prompted his response. It is a sign of good corporate responsibility when people like Mr Hagen make sure that organizations such as the FFA do not twist his words for their own agenda. Thank you, Jeff Hagen.
    ciao lee j

  • DCH

    Mr. Forsythe,

    Thank you for your response. As others have already stated, the problem is Mr. Hagen’s email. The FFA had no problem posting this email. Maybe the best way to clear this up is to post the email that Mr. Hagen was replying to. This will tell us if the FFA was misleading in their statements or if General Mills bowed due to pressure put on them for supporting a show with a GLBT character. If the original FFA email discusses other content and does not discuss the GLBT character, then it would appear that the FFA was misleading. If the GLBT character is raised in the original email, then it would appear that General Mills replied in a manner unbecoming of a company that has been known for sterling past behavior when it comes to human rights.

    As it is right now, based on the one email we are witness to, I cannot fully believe your statement. I want to but until further proof is given there have to be doubts to the sincerity. Please erase these doubts.

    Thanks,
    Douglas

    • http://blog.generalmills.com Tom Forsythe

      Thanks for your comment. Please see my response to a similar question above.

      Tom Forsythe
      General Mills
      (Editor’s note: This comment, from Aug. 22, was reposted to fix a reformatting issue) 

  • http://www.blog.generalmills.com/ Tom Forsythe

    Douglas,

    Thanks for your comment. Please see my response to a similar question above.

  • David B

    If u dont like their way of handling things.. dont buy their products.. they r gonna hurt a little, but they still got FFA. And remember.. they are not the only one in the US.

  • Rockie Soul

    ” As I explained, the Florida Family Association misinterpreted our decision, because we didn’t explain our reasoning. That’s on us. When we explained in a second email, to their credit, Florida Family Association changed their website”

    As of Tonight FFA’s website is the SAME. http://floridafamily.org/full_article.php?article_no=71

  • junebug

    Surely you do not expect us to believe what you are saying.You knew that you were responding to an anti gay group.As a gay woman I can assure you that I will never purchase another of your products and I will also ask that all gays stop stopping purchasing General Mill Products until General Mills has issued a public apology.

  • The Ceej

    @Rockie

    I was going to call him on that too. I wish I had seen your post before looking it up.

    Pretty Little Liars is a pretty good show title for this scandal because that’s exactly what I see when I see FFA and GM talking to us about it.

    (Editor’s note: This comment was edited to remove profanity, per our Community Guidelines)

  • Ankh

    Your reply to the FFA did not state that it was not a show that you sponsor. It was a show that you sponsored, after all. It stated that it is not a show that you WILL sponsor, as in from that point forward. You also thanked them for bringing “the matter” to your attention. You said to them exactly what they claim you said, which is that the matter they brought to your attention is what prompted you to cease sponsoring Pretty Little Liars. Stop insulting people’s intelligence and come clean.

  • NRHere

    @Rockie.

    I checked the website and it was clarified. You just had to scroll down. And it does say it’s not about the sexual orientation of the characters(at least on the side of general mills).

    @June, Mr. F is most likely a resident of Minnesota, so he probably wasn’t aware of the FFA until the situation blew up on the internet. It’s not like it was from the WBC (YUCK!).