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Hallmark Faces Holiday Controversy After Rejecting Ad With Same-Sex Couple

Brian Steinberg

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Hallmark Channel delivered a sentiment very different from the ones found in its parent company’s greeting cards when its executives questioned an ad showing two women getting married — and barred the commercial from running on its schedule.

Zola, a company that offers online wedding registries and wedding planning services, had been running commercials in recent days that feature a lesbian couple contemplating whether their wedding might have gone better if they had used Zola’s products. A spokeswoman for Zola said the company would remove all of its advertising from Hallmark “for the forseeable future” after being informed by the network that it would stop running commercials from Zola featuring a same-sex couple that had already appeared on the cable network.

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In a statement made to The New York Times, a spokesperson for Hallmark said the women’s public displays of affection violated the cable outlet’s standards. Another Zola advertisement featuring a heterosexual couple engaged in similar displays was not rejected.

The move has generated criticism. “The Hallmark Channel’s decision to remove LGBTQ families in such a blatant way is discriminatory and especially hypocritical coming from a network that claims to present family programming,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, in a statement.

The ads had already sparked a stir at Hallmark before they were taken off the air. One Million Moms, an advocacy organization that says it fights against indecency, had started an effort to get Hallmark to remove the spot, which began in rotation on Hallmark earlier this month. The group is affiliated with the American Family Association, a group that has for decades threatened media outlets with possible boycotts over controversial content. The organization was vocal, for example, about the use of partial nudity in the ABC series “NYPD Blue” when it launched in 1993, and, more recently, protested the 2012 depiction of a same-sex marriage in a storyline in Archie Comics.

“All kisses, couples and marriages are equal celebrations of love and we will no longer be advertising on Hallmark,” said Mike Chi, Zola’s chief marketing officer, in a statement.

The contretemps surfaces during one of Hallmark Channel’s most lucrative times of year. The network has developed a specialty in holiday programming, and its schedule around Christmas is jammed with sentimental movies such as “Christmas at Dollywood,” a drama starring Danica McKellar, Niall Matter and Dolly Parton in a story about an event planner trying to organize Christmas at Parton’s famous theme park, and “Naughty or Nice,” a film led by Hilarie Burton, Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter.

Other cable networks have tried to muscle in on the holiday-programming market  — and sell advertising packages around it. Walt Disney’s Freeform each year runs family-friendly movies in December, and AMC Networks has expanded its “Best Christmas Ever” holiday schedule to all of its cable outlets, including AMC and IFC. Zola may have other options.

Indeed, Freeform took to Twitter Saturday evening to tell Zola it would be happy to run its commercials. “Call us, @Zola. We celebrate the holidays with everyone,” read a post from the cable network.


TV networks regularly rush to take in holiday advertising, but Zola’s ad is the second in recent weeks to spark debate. A holiday commercial from Peloton, the online fitness company, launched criticism after some consumers took to social media to complain about the ad. Critics suggested the commercial, which depicted a fit woman using a Peloton bike her husband gave her as a gift, was being placed under pressure by her spouse to stay trim.

Both Zola and Peloton hail from a rising category of advertising that has its roots in online commerce. So-called “direct to consumer” marketers gained business traction by using digital advertising to identify the customers most likely to purchase their goods and services. In recent months, however, advertisers ranging from Warby Parker to Wayfair have made their way to TV, where advertisers tend to craft appeals to broader audiences rather than narrower demographics. The new advertisers are eager to use TV to broaden their customer base, but may have to learn to create commercials that do the same.