UPDATE: Feeling the heat from social media and the mainstream business press, Kayak CEO Steve Hafner chimed in today on the "All-American Muslim controversy," by defending and explaining the company's actions without issuing any further apologies.
Hafner's statement came in the form of an updated to the company's original apology and it was posted on Kayak.com.
"We're not bigots, and we're not experts in TV programming," Hafner writes. "We are trying to make the world's best travel site. I hope this blog post puts the issue to rest and allows us to get back to work."
The outcry has undoubtedly been a distraction for the travel metasearch site, which has been criticized for caving-in to extremist demands about the TLC reality show.
Hafner reiterated CMO Robert Birge's earlier statements that Kayak is a small company without the resources to vet all the programs it advertises on, and notes that Kayak routinely alters its media mix.
"Our decision regarding advertising on All-American Muslim was in no way influenced by demands from third parties such as the FFA," Hafner writes. "We do try to avoid advertising on shows that may produce controversy, whether we support the content or not. We simply don't want people to confuse our choice of where we spend our TV dollars with a political or moral agenda. Plus there are plenty of shows that are just as effective from a marketing perspective."
Hafner gave no ground on the controversy, with Kayak's position on the matter unchanged since yesterday.
Having the company's CEO address the topic, at least, was probably a sage move, although it's unlikely to mollify critics.
And, it also highlights the import of the issue and brand hit to Kayak.
The company has been repeating its apology on Twitter, for example, and has been engaging somewhat with critics.
Late yesterday, December 14, Kayak tweeted: "We're reading your comments and want to reiterate KAYAK is sensitive to all backgrounds. Apologies again to those offended by our handling."
Having Hafner address the topic himself and putting him in the line of fire reflects how seriously the travel site is taking the issue.
"This is actually my first blog post ever," Hafner writes. "Frankly, I wish it was on a different topic."
The original post follows:
Kayak will not continue to advertise on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim and finds itself in a social media storm over its decision.
The travel search site posted a statement on its website, authored by chief marketing officer Robert Birge and entitled, We Handled This Poorly.
The show, which airs Sunday nights in the US, depicts the lives of five Muslim American families in Dearborn, Michigan.
Kayak had been advertising on the show, but decided to discontinue its advertisements after a right-wing organization, the Florida Family Association, began an email campaign blasting the show as "propoganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law."
Birge writes that Kayak initially decided to advertise on the show "because we adamantly support tolerance and diversity," but decided to cease advertising on the show when it resumes in January after investigating All-American Muslim's content "more thoroughly."
"Unfortunately, this decision comes across as bending to bigotry," Birge writes. "It also appears that we did not support people who deserve support as people and as Americans. For that I am profoundly sorry.
"I should have communicated more clearly. We would not want anyone to think we caved to hatred. I wish I could share some of the emails I've received from our team. They are also very unhappy with how I handled this."
However, Kayak's initial statement didn't get very specific about why the company decided to cease advertising on All-American Muslim.
Among the hints, Kayak says:
- Advertising decisions are driven by who watches a show, not its political orientation;
- TLC was insincere in the beginning about what the show's content would be;
- The show's first two episodes "sucked."
"We believe TLC went out of their way to pick a fight on this, and they didn't let us know their intentions," Birge writes. "That's not a business practice that generally gets repeat business from us. I also believe tht it did this subject a grave disservice. Sadly, TLC is now enjoying the attention from this controversy."
However, in response to a question from Tnooz, Birge subsequently elaborated on the controversy, saying, "Content wasn't the issue -- the lack of a forthcoming pitch from TLC was the issue."
"When TLC pitched All-American Muslim to advertisers, it was characterized as a fair-and-balanced look at the life of an American Muslim," Birge says. "However, what was not disclosed was the preexisting controversy surrounding race, religion and specifically the divide between the Muslim and Christian communities in Dearborn, Mich. Dearborn has been a center of controversy for right or wrong; however, that was omitted by TLC when it pitched the show."
Birge notes that Kayak advertises on dozens of cable networks and hundreds of shows and doesn't have time to vet everything.
"With a company our size -- 150 people -- we do not have the resources or time to do full background checks on the content of every show on which we buy advertising," Birge says.
Still, from these comments, it seems like content indeed played some role in the decision.
Meanwhile, another advertiser, Lowes reportedly decided last weekend to remove its ads from the show, as well, and has been taking a beating in social media, as has Kayak.
As of early Wednesday afternoon EST, there were dozens of comments on Kayak's Facebook page, for instance, and most of them were critical of Kayak's decision and statement.
For example, Cristina Moon wrote on Facebook: "Guess I'll be using Kayak's competitors to book upcoming travel instead. I've been a longtime fan and have told my friends about your service. But I won't support a company that lets itself be pushed around by extremist hate groups. Oh, and I'll be watching "All-American Muslim" over break religiously (heyoo!)"
And, comments from Willie Turner and Jennifer O'Neal argued that Kayak's mea culpa "makes almost no sense" and wondered, "What topic is a particular lightning rod, Americans that practice Islam?"
Kayak did get some support on Facebook, with Meredith Olivia Henderson saying, "I appreciate the honesty and the clarification!"
No company desires to be caught in a social media firestorm, especially Kayak, with an IPO formally still pending.
The company's ongoing social media response to the controversy as the fallout continues will be closely watched and a critical piece.
Here's a clip YouTube clip from All-American Muslim: