NEW YORK — The Hallmark Channel was facing some bitter criticism on social media Sunday over its decision to pull ads for a wedding-planning website that featured two brides kissing at the altar, following a complaint from a conservative advocacy group.
The hashtag #BoycottHallmark was trending at one point on Twitter, and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and William Shatner assailed the decision. “Put the commercials back!” Shatner wrote. DeGeneres asked: “Isn’t it almost 2020?”
The LGBT advocacy group GLAAD called the decision to remove the Zola ads “discriminatory and especially hypocritical coming from a network that claims to present family programming and and also recently stated they are ‘open’ to LGBTQ holiday movies.” The group said it would be asking other Hallmark advertisers where they stand on the issue, and if they now will pull their advertising. Zola has said it won’t advertise on the channel.
Hallmark, which is in the midst of its heavily watched holiday programming, said Saturday it had removed the ads because the controversy was a distraction.
“The debate surrounding these commercials on all sides was distracting from the purpose of our network, which is to provide entertainment value,” said a statement provided to The Associated Press by Molly Biwer, senior vice president for public affairs and communications at Hallmark.
In an interview, she added: “The Hallmark brand is never going to be divisive. We don’t want to generate controversy, we’ve tried very hard to stay out of it … we just felt it was in the best interest of the brand to pull them and not continue to generate controversy.”
The conservative group One Million Moms, part of the American Family Association, had complained about the ads personally to Bill Abbott, CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, Hallmark’s parent company.
A post on the group’s website said that Abbott “reported the advertisement aired in error.” The group also wrote: “The call to our office gave us the opportunity to confirm the Hallmark Channel will continue to be a safe and family-friendly network.”
Zola had submitted six ads, and four included a lesbian couple. After Hallmark pulled those ads, but not two featuring only opposite-sex couples, Zola pulled its remaining ads, the company said.
“The only difference between the commercials that were flagged and the ones that were approved was that the commercials that did not meet Hallmark’s standards included a lesbian couple kissing,” said Mike Chi, Zola’s chief marketing officer, in a statement sent to the AP. “All kisses, couples and marriages are equal celebrations of love and we will no longer be advertising on Hallmark.”
One marketing analyst said the family-friendly Hallmark network now finds itself in the middle of a PR crisis that it should have seen coming.
“They’ve got trouble on their hands, and they’ve got to do something fast,” said Paul Argenti, a Dartmouth College professor of corporate communication. “They should never have accepted the ads if they weren’t willing to stand up for them. If you didn’t believe in gay couples getting married, why did you take the ads in the first place?”
The question Hallmark will now have to answer, he said, is: “What are your values? Do you stand for all families?’”
In one of the pulled ads, two brides stand at the altar and wonder aloud whether their wedding would be going more smoothly if they had used a wedding planning site like Zola. The lighthearted ad ends with the just-married couple sharing a quick kiss.
Actress Sandra Bernhard, who played one of the first openly bisexual characters on network TV in “Roseanne,” also criticized Hallmark’s decision.
“All the groovy gay ladies i know won’t be watching your Christmas schlock,” she wrote on Twitter, addressing Hallmark.
The Hallmark decision was also mocked on “Saturday Night Live,” and Netflix US tweeted stills from a TV show and movie that it labeled “Titles Featuring Lesbians Joyfully Existing And Also It’s Christmas Can We Just Let People Love Who They Love.”
The developments came as Hallmark appeared to be considering more same-sex themed content.
Asked about the possibility of holiday movies based on same-sex relationships, Abbott was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter in mid-November as saying on its TV podcast: “We’re open to really any type of movie of any type of relationship.”