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jeffullrich

General Snus Ads on Earwolf Shows

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Hi Everyone,

 

I wanted to share my thoughts on the General Snus ads that ran on The Fogelnest Files and Kevin Pollak's Chat Show last week. I wouldn't say the ads caused a listener backlash - or you would have heard from me sooner - but there have been a few tweets, a few emails and a few general internet comments. I've been thinking about making a statement for a while and have finally decided it is a good idea. I probably should have done it sooner.

 

In case you don't know, General Snus is a smokeless tobacco product. For those of you who were offended by the ads, I share your sentiment and regret that they ran. We canceled the remainder of the campaign, will not be charging General Snus for the ads that did run and have credited each of the shows with the value of the ads that did run on their shows.

 

This is a very important and complicated topic. I'd like to start a conversation about it here.

 

History

Since the very first time I sold ads for our shows, I have been a big believer in showing our listeners and hosts respect by working with brands that provide value to a decent sub-set of our listeners and who respect our need to have the ads in the voice of the hosts. An example of how this works well in practice is Bonobos.

 

Bonobos is an online men's clothing line. Their clothes are on the nicer and therefore pricier side. They started advertising on Sklarbro Country and had success. They are a cool brand with a great sense of humor about themselves. They were very willing to work with Randy and Jason on how the spots were delivered.

 

Were half of the show's listeners in the market to buy a $90 pair of pants online? No. But enough were and the people who weren't interested could understand how other members of their tribe, fellow listeners, would be interested. Those kind of ads work and feel good. It doesn't have to be for everyone, but everyone has to feel good about the ad being on the show. That describes most every ad we run.

 

For years we said no to advertisers that I found shady, not even bringing their offers to the hosts. I felt good about that. I hope you as listeners noticed that we weren't running all the ads you heard on other podcasts, only the one's that fit the criteria outlined above. We walked the walk.

 

What's Changed?

As some of you know, about a year ago, I started a company called Midroll. It's a company that sells ads for all kinds of podcasts, not just Earwolf. My experience selling ads for Earwolf is what allowed me to start Midroll. Earwolf and Midroll are both owned by a holding company, Midroll Media.

 

In starting Midroll, a few things had to change. For one, I couldn't only accept shows that I myself would listen to. Well I could, but that wasn't the business that I wanted to build. So while there were a few shows that made me say, "Should we really sell ads here?", I ultimately settled on "yes". Earwolf would be where I could exercise my taste, but Midroll was built to support professional podcasters of all kinds, not only the one's that had shows I listened to personally. That was a distinction I made about 6 months ago and I'm happy with my decision. (Side note: I came to that decision while listening to a show that wanted to join Midroll and I was like, "I don't get this. How is this compelling entertainment?" only to realize that many people feel the same way about some Earwolf shows! They are wrong, of course, but they feel that way. It was then I knew that Midroll wasn't supposed to be a curator, that was Earwolf's job.)

 

The second thing that changed was that I needed to add staff to help me run the company. While Earwolf was my baby for a long time and I could be the CEO and do a lot of other jobs, Midroll was a business that would grow very quickly, require technology, money, etc. I needed help. So I brought in some great people.

 

These great people forced my hand (in a good way) as far as the third change...

 

How Was It Decided to Run The General Snus Ads?

 

The third change was that I couldn't treat all the Midroll hosts the way I treated Earwolf hosts. It wasn't my business to play god. They weren't my brands and weren't my shows. The job of Midroll was to present ad opportunities to our podcasters. Period. That meant not saying no on behalf of a podcaster.

 

(Another side note: ALL Midroll (and thus Earwolf) podcasters have 100% veto rights on every single ad. That is a key value we hold. In order to keep podcasting podcasting, and not turn it into radio or other things, the host has to be in charge of how many ads are on the show, what the ads say (generally) and who they are for - they are personal endorsements. I believe as strongly as possible in that and will never violate that belief. Where it went wrong with Jake and Kevin was that they thought we wanted them to do the ads and were surprised and disappointed but felt obligated to go along, while we felt obligated to offer the campaign but were surprised and disappointed they said yes. All that was missing was Mr. Furley. Collectively we have since sorted it out and won't let it happen again.)

 

So when General Snus inquired and I balked, my team pushed back. We discussed the topic for over an hour during an offsite meeting. Their arguments were compelling, logical and correct for our business. The upshot - we should give the podcasters the choice.

 

Here is where I made my big mistake - I should have said, "Ok, we'll give Midroll podcasters the choice. That is our obligation. But I am saying, as CEO of Earwolf, that Earwolf is not interested.". But I didn't say that.

 

Here is why I didn't say that - when you really start to get into this, you can't win. There are plenty of people offended by tobacco ads (myself included), but some people aren't. I used to smoke and I hate promoting it. But is it about me? What about beer? Some people don't like alcohol. Maybe they are an alcoholic (or love one). Should we not do any beer ads? Should I say no to those ads because I don't drink (I also happen to be a recovering alcoholic!)? What about soda ads? Some people blame obesity on soda. Is that as dangerous as General Snus? Are we making money off of the obese with soda ads? What about HBO's Louis CK special? What if it's not funny? How many collective hours of our listeners lives would we be responsible for wasting by watching an unfunny one-hour stand-up special? Could they have had a better life with that hour back?

 

Of course, suggesting that Louis CK could have a bad comedy special is as ridiculous as saying that watching it should be compared to consuming a tobacco product. My point is simply that it gets confusing pretty fast and it's hard to know where to draw the line.

 

During that offsite discussion I made a one big decision - we would bring most offers, including General Snus, to all hosts and let them decide for themselves. But we would NOT bring every offer. We would draw the line with things like lending companies. What's the difference? We assume that everyone knows the risks of tobacco products (and even in the ads we did run, we said we did not endorse their use) but they can chose if they want to do something that puts them at risk. That's on them. But if we tell you about a financial product that turns out to be predatory and you only got involved with it because your favorite and most trusted host told you to, that is on us. We can't expect all of our listeners to understand things like predatory peer to peer lending. It's our job to protect them there.

 

Where Does This Leave Us?

 

I hope you can forgive me. I made a mistake. I should have stood up for Earwolf listeners during that final debate. I won't let it happen again.

 

But I also think that Midroll is right to let podcasters decide. Different strokes.

 

Myself, Scott, the crew and all of our hosts have spent 4 years building trust with our growing group of listeners and I hope this instance of poor judgement doesn't erode that trust.

 

What do you think? I want to hear from you on this important topic. Please share your thoughts below. Thanks for reading.

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one time i bought a whole parcel of razors because mr pardo said good things about harry's razors on NNF, he wasnt getting paid for it tho

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ps the razors own

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Hey Jeff,

 

I can only speak for myself, but I certainly forgive you. I can see why people wouldn't want there to be tobacco ads in their favorite podcasts. While I don't like the idea of Earwolf running those ads, I also understand that trying new and different sponsors is an important part of your business. I have enjoyed listening to Earwolf get bigger. However, I expect that to come with a lot of changes, some of which won't be permanent. Sometimes you get Bonobos (and a sweet pair of chinos), and sometimes you get a Pepsi ad. The way Jake read the snus copy also made me think that maybe it was an elaborate bit, so I didn't expect it to hang around for longer than a week anyway.

 

Sorry if I bumbled through that, what I'm saying is: my thought process was NOT "oh Snus ad on Earwolf-> thus Earwolf has sold out to the man"

 

It's great that you are willing to discuss this. In general, it isn't really possible to be able to discuss specific ads with the content producers (at least in other formats)

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oh yeah i also bought every thing matt besser has made

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Jeff, I think the fact that you penned a lengthy response to a tiny number of complaints—in lieu of spending your limited downtime with your family—speaks volumes about how much you care about Earwolf, your hosts, and the listeners.

 

I'm a firm advocate of ad-supported podcasts. Given a choice between "the shows I love disappearing" and "enduring 90 seconds of ads during a 90 minute show", I will always opt for the latter. If my time on the forums is any indication, no product is too mundane to avoid complaints, but a listener construing any ad as a "betrayal of trust" suggests a woeful lack of perspective.

 

Finally, while you were gracious in trying to shield your staff from any blowback resulting from this matter, we all know that Cody was ultimately to blame. God dammit, Cody.

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I think this is another in a long line of examples that show how much you care about Earwolf. How many other CEOs do you know who would hear a minor complaint about the company and respond with a 1500-word forum post detailing the decisions and ending by asking for forgiveness?!

 

 

Honestly, I zone out or skip through the ads, usually because they're not applicable to me by interest (don't like audiobooks/well-fitted mens chinos) or location (official US postage isn't much use in the UK). I place them into "this is the part where the show pays the bills, ignore for 2 minutes and it'll be back to the good part", so I don't care about what product is being plugged. The content or product in the ad really doesn't affect my view of Earwolf or the hosts, I totally divorce the ads from the show. I also don't "trust" the hosts, I understand it's an ad and they/Earwolf are being paid to read it.

 

That said, I totally understand why you wouldn't feel so cynical about your own company's output, and especially when the ads take the form of personal testimonials. "We use Stamps.com here at Earwolf...", "We used Legal Zoom to set up...", etc. I think you're right to take personal opinions out of the equation with Midroll, and put them into the equation with Earwolf. You haven't lost any of my trust here.

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I don't care what those jokers that host Hollywood Handbook say Jeff, in my book you rule and stuff like this is proof that your leadership has made Earwolf the best podcasting network by far. It sounds like this General Snus thing came about mostly because of a misunderstanding so I wouldn't beat yourself up about it. I trust you and the hosts and the Earwolf crew to make decisions that you feel comfortable with regarding ads, and I support anything that keeps the lights on and keeps these shows running. Keep up the great work!

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Thanks for writing this, Jeff. Its always interesting to gain more insight on the business side of podasting. You really care about your listeners and employees and it shows.

 

As for the ads, I don't really get offended that easily so I don't much care. As you said it is completely up to the podcaster, so if the podcaster decides to endorse a somewhat shady product it is on them. This particular case just seems to be poor communication more than anything. I heard the snus ad over on Doug Loves Movies and I just found it tonally strange to the point it was hilarious.

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Thanks everyone. I appreciate the support and you taking the time to share your thoughts. I'm glad that we were able to get in front of this move away from something that didn't feel very good.

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Dan Engler summed up my feelings on this. I don't know if Doug Loves Movies is on Midroll but they ran a similar ad about a week ago. On the DLM reddit we discussed our feelings of the ad and I think the general consensus was that you guys gotta make money, but I sure hope it was worth it. Also it is hilarious to hear the "this may cause mouth cancer" disclaimer.

 

But I think it's great that you offer the freedom you do to your hosts, but accept your responsibilities as a CEO.

 

I guess I forgive you for that, but for cancelling the Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project? What is with you and cancelling our favorite podcasts? I thought we cleared this up a while ago!

 

I hope you get that joke.

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Do what you feel is right Jeff.

 

An ad's an ad. It didn't bother me.

 

It's not like I'm highly susceptible to ad campaigns, other than the delicious deals at Domino's! Whenever I see one of those on the internet, I think to myself, "Just do it! Order the Domino's pizza and wash it down with an ice Cold Coca-Cola; then brush your teeth with an Oral-B toothbrush covered in Crest.

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a time saving tip: apply the t-paste directly to your domino oreo desert pizza

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Thank you for taking the time to explain the thought process behind this decision. I think it's great that the hosts can decide whether or not to run an ad on their show but as CEO of Earwolf you're still ultimately responsible for the content (ads included) of every show.

 

Have you thought about possibly labeling each show that accepts tobacco or alcohol ads in the future? It might be a nice tool for parents of teenage comedy fans who don't want them targeted with ads meant for adults.

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