Q&A: Inside the Ad Boycott of Fox Host Steven Cohen

Last Updated Jul 31, 2009 1:01 PM EDT

When Fox declined to renew Steven Cohen's contract as a Fox Soccer Channel host, it was a rare example of a successful advertiser boycott. They don't usually work -- an attempt by Christians to boycott Campbell Soup over an ad featuring a lesbian family, which BNET noted in January, came to naught.

So when American fans of Liverpool F.C. attempted to persuade advertisers on Fox and Sirius XM's World Soccer Daily to pull their spending from Cohen's shows, the most likely outcome was failure. The Liverpool supporters were outraged that Cohen had blamed them for a 1989 disaster at the Hillsborough stadium in England, when 96 fans were killed in a crowd crush. Cohen repeated his comments -- at one point and he didn't help himself by calling Liverpool fans murderers in 2008 -- before eventually apologizing and admitting he was wrong. By that time four advertisers, including Heineken, had abandoned Cohen's shows, and Fox's non-renewal of Cohen on Fox Football Fone-In came shortly after.

How did the Liverpool fans succeed -- in a culture where soccer is frequently an afterthought -- where so many others have not? How did fans of what is still a niche sport in the U.S. persuade three corporate giants -- Fox, Heineken and Chelsea F.C. -- into backing their cause?

Here's a Q&A with Conor Brennan (pictured), vp of the Liverpool F.C. New York Supporters Club, who organized the boycott.

BNET: What's the reaction to Fox getting rid of Cohen so far? Brennan: Since this broke into the mainstream on USA Today, the coverage from what I'm reading seems to be significantly more positive ... We always had coverage from blogs, message boards and what-not, and now that seems to have gone off the charts.

We've got a few people who preface their remarks by saying "I'm not a Liverpool fan but I'm glad that Steven Cohen is not coming back." We were always getting 15 percent of our support from MLS fans. "I'm an MLS fan, I don't care for Liverpool and the English Premier League but I hate what Steven Cohen says about our league, that and the U.S. men's national team. We're not getting pushback from fans in the U.K., we're getting pushback from fans of English teams in the U.S. His base listenership was made up of American fans.

BNET: Cohen has apologized, admitted he was wrong, and he's lost his job. Does this bring the campaign to an end? Brennan: Absolutely not. The initial campaign was to get Steven Cohen off the air at Fox and off the air at World Soccer Daily. I have lost count of the number of apologies Steven Cohen has issued ... he waits 'til the storm dies down and goes back again and repeats them. ... we have zero guarantee that come the 21st anniversary of Hillsborough he will not once again be referring to Liverpool fans as "murderers."

BNET: What sorts of things did you do to persuade advertisers to leave his shows? Brennan: All we really did was call advertisers and explain our position. We pointed out that Liverpool makes up a portion of the soccer market and that he was dividing that market. Did they really want to be associated with someone who was doing that? Knowlingly lying with their name and their money? The soccer market in the States is only going to grow. It cuts through all demographics, urban and suburban, and all age groups. And Steven Cohen was dividing that.

BNET: The biggest advertiser who left Cohen was Heineken. How did you persuade them to join the boycott? Hillsborough is not an easy issue to understand for Americans. Brennan: When we initially approached Heineken we got the stock corporate response, "Thank you for your response, we'll get back to you." We then realized that Heineken USA either didn't know, didn't quite understand the severity or the tragedy of Hillsborough, so we approached an arm of Heineken that would understand, Heineken Ireland and Heineken U.K., explained to them that Heineken USA was involved and that they might not appreciate the nuance and depth of feeling on Hillsborough. It's not just seen as a Liverpool tragedy, it's seen as a tragedy in all of football. We asked them to explain to their U.S. counterparts ... that's when Heineken pulled their sponsorship.

BNET: Did advertisers understand what this was about? Brennan: Ruffneck Wear knew about Hillsborough and understands. Who Are Ya Designs just decided not to re-up their contract. We had to do a fair amount of explaining but there's so much stuff out there on the web about Hillsborough, any quick search will come up with a lot of documents.

BNET: How many people were involved in sending emails to advertisers? Brennan: I was aware of one group on Facebook that has 3,500 members, another group has 5,000 members, and LFCNY has 500 members. I have no idea how many emailed. Some sponsors came to us afterwards to say they got tired of all the emails. We made a distinct point of emailing those sponsors back to say thank you if they joined us. One sponsor said "Please take me off the thank-you list, you're slowing down our servers."

BNET: The boycott was a significant sacrifice for some advertisers -- these are often small businesses and there are limited venues to reach football fans in America. It's basically Fox, WSD and Setanta. Brennan: One sponsor said, "I can't stand Steven Cohen, I hate what he says about Hillsborough, but I have to advertise with him. For a number of advertisers WSD appears to be the only game in town. But their marketing people would have to tell them if they're being targeted by Liverpool fans it's alienating a sizeable portion of the target base.

BNET: Isn't there a free speech concern here -- one possible lesson from this is that if you're well organized enough you can get someone off the air just because you don't like what they say? Brennan: I would say well organized enough if your cause is right. You're not going to fly by on a spurious cause. As for free speech, it's a much misunderstood concept. It comes to government interference in free speech, the government can't censor Steven Cohen for telling lies about Hillsborough, the government has not been involved in any shape with Steven Cohen. So it's not a free speech issue from a constitutional point of view.

BNET: Has Fox said anything to you? Brennan: We were in negotiations with Fox at the end of May, early June. They contacted us to take the temperature, I'm guessing. They were very corporate, very much on-message. "We understand the concerns of all our viewers, we take them all on board. We note your complaints." They didn't deviate. They refused to comment on ongoing contract negotiations with future employees. That was their initial thing.

BNET: Has there been any interest outside the football world? Brennan: I've had a soccer-related industry firm call me wanting to know if they decided to advertise on Steven Cohen's show would they be the target of a boycott? And I said yes.

BNET: Isn't there a risk here that you're interfering with Cohen's contracts? He might sue you. Brennan: We haven't interfered with any of Steven Cohen's contracts. All we have done is gone to his advertisers and said, Look, this is what he's stating in your name with your money. We think you should pull your ads. I have not seen a single advertising contract between Steven Cohen and any advertiser

BNET: What's the situation with EPLTalk, one of the blogs that first drew attention to this and then refused to publish any more information about it? Brennan: I know Steven Cohen went after Chris Harris of EPLtalk for defamation. My understanding was he sent a lawyer's letter. As to what's gone on subsequently, I don't know.

BNET: What about Cohen's allegations that Liverpool fans sent him anti-semitic emails? Brennan: We condemn anti-semitism in the strongest terms, but we cannot be responsible for some 15-year-old kid with a keyboard. We have not asked for any anti-semitic emails to be sent. Why would we? We need the neutral people on our side.

BNET: What's the next step? Brennan: To continue targeting the sponsors and to go after Sirius Xm. so we're finding ways to target Sirius. Sirius is aware of our concerns and communications are ongoing.

Contact Brennan at info@lfcny.org. Disclosure: Author joined LFCNY as a member months before the incidents discussed. BNET's previous coverage of football advertising:

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