In a move as sobering as it is stunning, a national company is pulling its advertising sponsorships from college football games involving scandal-ridden Pennsylvania State University, and some other advertisers are weighing the option.
Cars.com told ESPN to pull its ads from last week's Nebraska vs. Penn State clash at Beaver Stadium, the first game after the scandal involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky broke Nov. 5, and Saturday's national telecast of Penn State at Ohio State.
In a carefully worded statement, Cars.com explained its reasons:
"Due to the recent allegations surrounding the Penn State Football program, Cars.com notified ESPN on Tuesday, Nov. 8, of its plans to withdraw from the broadcast sponsorship of the Nebraska at Penn State game, as well as the game between Penn State and Ohio State," Cars.com spokesman Ron Hall said.
"As a proud, longtime supporter of ESPN College Football, it's important to us that we're building our brand in a way that celebrates the sport, its fans and the dedication of its student athletes."
It is not surprising that advertisers seek an environment that is a welcome one for their messages, and bad news - especially something as troubling as the Penn State situation - doesn't provide that.
Airlines traditionally pull their advertisements from newspapers after a crash. Companies - Procter & Gamble was one - that had promotional deals with Tiger Woods left him in droves last year when his marriage shattered because of his adultery.
But advertisers believing that selling automobiles, beer, or razors would be made difficult or impossible by virtue of Penn State's appearance in a regularly scheduled Big Ten Conference game against a highly rated rival - a scenario that would not seem to be starkly unsettling for sponsors - is a measure of the scandal's collateral damage.
The damage is troubling to Cars.com and other advertisers, including PepsiCo, which says it is closely monitoring developments in the Penn State case.
"Many advertisers are averse to controversy and will adjust their advertising placements accordingly," said Jon Swallen, senior vice president of research at Kantar Media in New York, which tracks advertising campaigns across all major media. "Controversy takes many forms, and certainly allegations of child abuse would fit that definition for many marketers."
Said Kenneth D. Makovsky, president of his namesake public relations firm in New York: "Penn State will likely be a risky investment for major corporations for a while to come, as the story's not over and will probably be kept alive with years of litigation."
Advertisers typically buy packages of TV spots that are scheduled to run on many programs across a period of time.
"In many cases, advertisers will move their commercials to different programs on the same network," to distance themselves from a controversy or scandal, Swallen said.
That's what Cars.com did.
"We are currently working with ESPN to reschedule our commercials, but have not finalized our plans with the network yet," Hall said Wednesday. The ads will appear in another football game, and Cars.com will continue to sponsor events on ESPN.
Penn State operated the third most profitable college football program in the country in the 2010 season, with revenue of $70 million. The school declined to disclose what percentage of that revenue came from TV advertising.
The advertising dollars from a nationally televised regular-season game are divided among the schools, their athletic conferences, and the networks, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
"How advertising dollars are distributed is based on individual school or conference contracts," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said.
ESPN declined comment on whether other companies had requested shifting their ad buys. "We do not comment on individual advertising deals," ESPN's Amy Phillips said.
"[Advertisers] want the perception of their product and its positioning to be consistent across everything the consumer sees or hears about their product," said Len Lodish, of Penn's Wharton School. "That includes their advertising, packaging, what goes on in the stores . . . everything about the company.
"However, I don't know if a typical consumer or viewer really associates the image of the brands being advertised during a football game with the image of one of the teams or one of the schools playing. I think that may be a little bit of a stretch."
But it's enough to make some companies nervous.
"We are very concerned about the current allegations surrounding certain individuals at Penn State University but will continue to honor our longstanding relationship," PepsiCo, which owns the brands Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Gatorade, and Quaker Oats Co., said in a statement.
"Our support of collegiate athletics is support for student athletes, both at Penn State and universities across the country," said Tom Henderson, spokesman for Detroit-based General Motors. "At this time, we have no plans to pull our ads."
One Pennsylvania company did sever ties with Penn State. The Meadows Racetrack and Casino near Pittsburgh terminated its working relationship with Steelers and Penn State alumnus Franco Harris - its celebrity spokesman - on Tuesday after his criticism of the firing of coach Joe Paterno.