Kayak CMO Offers Mixed Commentary About ''All-American Muslim' Advertising

Corporate blogs are proving to be an interesting venue for transparency. There’s been a CEO comparing himself to Icarus and a top journalist musing about taking a different tack in dealing with law enforcement while reporting.

The September post by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had him blaming personal “arrogance” for poorly communicating why the company changed its pricing and distribution policies. ESPN recently offered up an interview with its news chief, Vince Doria, explaining its reporting in the Syracuse child molestation case. And, Doria acknowledged journalists should at least consider turning over troubling information obtained in reporting to police.

Now comes a mea culpa from Kayak CMO Robert Birge about the online travel company’s role in advertising during TLC’s “All-American Muslim,” the reality series following five Michigan Islamic families. The matter has received considerable attention since Lowe’s pulled out of the show following complaints by conservative activists that Muslims are using the show to advance some sort of dangerous messaging.



CMO Birge’s post is commendable for its attempt to set the record straight about the online travel company’s involvement and subsequent disassociation with the show. Credit any company willing to give a nearly 500-word explanation for a controversial action rather than a two-sentence bromide.

Kayak’s strategy gets an A, but its execution no higher than a D. Birge's message begins with a firm statement about the company’s commitment to diversity and an apology for any misinterpretation about where it stands. Birge should have stopped there.

His later attempt to pin some of the blame on TLC for Kayak getting caught up in the controversy is petty and unnecessary, if not unfair. Also, considering the issue involves the demonization of an ethnic group, another explanation Birge offers is regrettably expressed in a juvenile, inappropriate fashion.

Birge starts with a powerful defense of inclusion, saying Kayak decided to advertise in the show “in the first place because we adamantly support tolerance.”

He goes on to say Kayak did not “pull” its ads from “All-American Muslim,” but simply opted not to buy any more time on the show.   

“Unfortunately, this decision comes across as bending to bigotry,” he writes. “It also appears that we did not support people who deserve support as people and as Americans. For that, I am profoundly sorry.”

Birge says he should have communicated Kayak’s decision-making more clearly, noting that Kayak employees have expressed frustration.

And, that’s where Birge should have stopped writing.

While his intentions going forward – to lay out all the reasons for Kayak’s actions – were noble, his approach is questionable. He details what he discovered when he investigated the matter after loads of emails.

TLC is in the business of generating ratings and some of its programming might have trouble standing up to charges of being exploitative.

Whether that is the case with “All-American Muslim” or not – and it’s hard to believe it is -- Birge erred in taking the low road. He accuses TLC of intentionally trying to drum up ratings from controversy and failing to let advertisers know that was its plan.

“The first thing I discovered was that TLC was not upfront with us about the nature of this show … it's a worthy topic, but any reasonable person would know that this topic is a particular lightning rod,” Birge writes. “We believe TLC went out of their way to pick a fight on this, and they didn't let us know their intentions. That's not a business practice that generally gets repeat business from us … Sadly, TLC is now enjoying the attention from this controversy.”

“Enjoying” seems a bit misguided. The TLC sales staff might not be happy with angering a client as large as Lowe’s.

Further, Birge's passing the blame is lame. If Kayak was eager to advertise in the show to express its support for inclusion, it clearly knew that a title such as “All-American Muslim” would grab attention. So, it would seem Birge would demand to review full episodes -- or at least a load of clips and summaries -- before committing to advertise.

Early in the blog post, Birge takes ample responsibility for his actions. He should have continued to throughout – or simply not involved TLC.

While Birge didn’t bother to obtain the episodes before committing dollars, he says he later watched the first two episodes and found another reason not to advertise anymore – one he expresses with elegance.

“Mostly, I just thought the show sucked,” he writes.

Wonder if that will help Kayak’s business among Muslim customers?

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