Fox News advertisers get direct line to the viewer-in-chief

Todd Shields and Jennifer A. Dlouhy

Farmers seeking government assistance knew where to make their case: on Fox News, in TV ads with tractors and corn stalks designed to snag the attention of President Donald Trump.

U.S. airlines, opposed to subsidies for foreign competitors paid by Qatar, took the same broadcast route to the viewer-in-chief, urging him to oppose “trade cheating.”

While the ads generate a small portion of the network’s income – many are local spots airing only in Washington – the phenomenon points to the unusual symbiosis between a conservative president and conservative opinion programs that boosted his political fortunes. Trump’s penchant for sharing his viewing habits with regular tweets to his millions of followers in turn helps drive viewers to the shows.

This Jan. 17, 2018 file photo shows co-host Brian Kilmeade on the set of "Fox & Friends" in New York.  Fox’s political-ad spending reports filed at the FCC show robust spending on programs that figure in Trump’s viewing, like "Fox & Friends."

“When it comes to reaching President Trump or communicating a message to him, it might be more effective to buy ads on Fox News than it would be to have an actual conversation with him,” Nick Everhart, president of Republican ad firm Content Creative Media, said in an email.

Advertisers long have sought to reach influential people, such as legislators and their staff, for instance by running ads on Sunday TV talk shows that are viewed by the political class, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

What’s new is the certainty that a president would be watching a program such as "Fox & Friends," Jamieson said.

“The underlying problem isn’t that these folks have figured out to buy ads targeted to the president,” Jamieson said in an interview. “The problem is that the president gets his information from these shows.”

The National Biodiesel Board is among groups buying ads aimed directly at Trump. The group wanted Trump’s backing in a fight.

“We ran our ad on Fox television for one week and online for two because we are aware that the president watches that channel and often reacts to it,” said Paul Winters, a spokesman for the board.

Oil industry advocates on the other side of the issue shot back with their own ads, with the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers purchasing time on Fox programming in Washington, D.C. The ad featured smiling refinery workers in hard hats and said, “President Trump, only you can fix this.” At issue was whether to give refineries exemptions from requirements to buy fuels made from corn and soybeans.

Fox’s political-ad spending reports filed at the Federal Communications Commission show robust spending on programs that figure in Trump’s viewing.

One destination for the targeted ads is the morning program “Fox & Friends.” Its hosts have fielded live calls from Trump and landed interviews with the president, who in turn lauds the show to his 64 million Twitter followers. The show has attracted at least $238,250 political ads bought in the Washington, D.C. market, this year, according to Advertising Analytics, a media intelligence firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.

According to Advertising Analytics, other Fox programs attracting political ads inserted into spots reserved for local programming in the Washington market included “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “The Ingraham Angle,” featuring Laura Ingraham, and “Hannity” featuring Sean Hannity – all of which have attracted presidential tweets.

U.S. airlines ran an ad on Fox News before the leader of the Middle Eastern nation Qatar visited Trump in July. The airlines, which accuse Qatar of unfair subsidies, have formed a group called Partnership for Open & Fair Skies that includes American Airlines Group Inc., United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc.

Their ad in May asked Trump to crack down, opening with a clip of the president at a podium saying, “We will stand up to trade cheating.” The partnership told supporters the ad was running on Fox & Friends, according to a person briefed on the matter.

The partnership declined to discuss details of the ad-time purchase. It sent an emailed statement from Scott Reed, its managing partner, which said, “American workers are counting on President Trump to stand up for U.S. jobs and fair competition.”

In a White House meeting in July, U.S. airlines failed to win Trump’s intervention.

Foreign-headquartered automakers including Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG in 2017 bought time on Fox & Friends to tout their American-made vehicles.

Trump-seeking ads aren’t limited to business topics. After a gunman espousing anti-immigrant views killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro bought time on Fox & Friends in Bedminster, New Jersey, where Trump was staying at a golf club he owns.

The spot was intended “to send a message to @realDonaldTrump on his vacation: words have consequences, and we’ve had enough,” Castro said in a tweet. In the ad Castro said Trump had “stoked the fire of racists.”

Fox said in a statement, “FOX News has been the most-watched cable news network for more than 17 years and the top network in all of cable for the last three years which is why we continue to be a premiere destination.”

Fox News, like other news channels, enjoyed a ratings bump during the last presidential election cycle, and the ongoing volatile political environment continues to drive viewership of cable news. Fox has largely led cable news viewing for years, with a sizable lead across different demographics and times of day in recent years, ahead of CNN and MSNBC.

Fox & Friends has been the top-rated morning show in cable news for 214 months in a row, according to Nielsen ratings.

On occasion, Trump has expressed his displeasure with Fox, but with nowhere near the gusto he reserves for news outlets such as the New York Times or CNN. On Wednesday, he took Fox to task on Twitter for “heavily promoting the Democrats” by interviewing a Democratic National Committee official with “zero pushback” – even though some of the network’s hosts have faced criticism for not pushing back during interviews with Trump.

“The New @FoxNews is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” Trump said in another tweet.

The network has been the target of ad boycotts in the past – for instance, Bill O’Reilly, a host who faced allegations of sexual harassment, was ousted after dozens of advertisers fled his top-rated show. Other hosts, such as Ingraham, also have been hit by boycott calls.

But by catching and holding Trump’s attention, the network has offset some of those losses with messages aimed directly at the West Wing.

Selling the ads is possible because of the unconventional decision-making of a president who watches a lot of TV “and relies less on the advice and counsel of advisers, and more on his gut," said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who tracks political advertising.

“It’s a perfect storm which suggests people should advertise on the shows that the person who is deciding is watching,” Goldstein said.

Everhart, the ad firm executive, said that running an ad on Fox News “is only topped by the commentary of Fox News hosts and guests at driving the president’s agenda and grabbing his attention.”

With assistance from Alan Levin, Bill Allison and Anousha Sakoui.