"It's a massive and efficient strike," says Aimée Knight, assistant professor of communication sciences at St. Joseph's University. "What's exciting is just how fast this has happened, and how empowering it is for everyday citizens."
Limbaugh had slammed Georgetown law student and women's-rights activist Sandra Fluke, who had testified before Democrats in the House, saying that all private insurance plans, including those of religiously affiliated employers, should be required to cover contraception.
Between Feb. 29 and March 3, Limbaugh repeatedly called Fluke a "slut" or "prostitute." He argued Fluke was asking taxpayers to subsidize her sexual life.
The backlash was instantaneous. Twitter messages with the hashtags #stoprush, #boycottrush, and #boycottrushsupporters arose by the thousands, many calling on sponsors to drop Limbaugh's show.
@TrishandDuke asked: "Walmart how long can you support Rush and not be concerned about your customer base?" @DiveGal called for direct action: "Please call Champion Windows. . . & ask them why they support hate speech on @770KTTH" - pressuring a Seattle company and radio station.
Websites such as the liberal Media Matters and bloggers such as Krystal Ball of the Huffington Post seized the issue. Media Matters now tracks Limbaugh advertisers.
As in leaderless movements such as the tea party in 2009 and the Egypt uprising and Occupy movement in 2011, Facebook pages popped up to organize the protest. As of Friday, "Boycott Rush Limbaugh's Sponsors to SHUT HIM DOWN" had 32,763 "likes" on Facebook, and "Boycott Rush Limbaugh's Sponsors" had 15,805.
On the social-media site reddit, a user named jaybercrow started a discussion March 2, calling for a national ad boycott. It now has more than 3,100 comments. The next week, he went local: "Here is what I propose, go to Rush Limbaugh's website and find who is broadcasting Rush in your city. Visit that stations website and gather the sponsors contact information....' "
Soon big voices weighed in, almost all in the "con" column. They included Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The Canadian prog trio Rush and English musician Peter Gabriel (whose hit "Sledgehammer" played during Limbaugh's Feb. 29 jeremiad) asked the show to stop playing their music.
Most prominent of all was President Obama's phone call to Fluke, and his suavely political remark later that Fluke reminded him of his daughters: "One of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on."
("My students may resist feminism," says Knight, "but when they see that statement, or the pictures of Obama and his daughters, which have become an Internet meme, they get the visceral pathos.")
On March 3, in the midst of the ad exodus, Limbaugh posted an apology - one Fluke dismissed - on his website.
"It's another of those media-related celebrity apologies you see almost every day," says Kenneth Wisnefski, chief executive of the online marketing firm Webimax in Mount Laurel.
Ironically, a fellow talk-show host, HBO's Bill Maher, defended Limbaugh's apology (not his comments) on Twitter. "Also hate intimidation by sponsor pullout," he tweeted. As well he might. Maher himself faced an ad boycott after his remarks about the 9/11 attacks. That pullout was credited with ending his show Politically Incorrect.
Contact John Timpane
at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact him on Twitter @jtimpane.