Cola pulled its advertising from the WWF's prime-time television programs. However high the Nielsen ratings, said a company spokesman, profits had wrestled with conscience, and conscience had won. The Federation's programs, in his words, "crossed the line in terms of content, language, and character portrayals." Coke had in mind the disturbing acts of superstars like Al Snow, who prances around the ring carrying a female mannequin's severed head. (To capitalize on that image, the WWF had actually licensed a toy manufacturer to make a figurine of Snow, complete with tiny decapitated noggin.)
WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, his brain seemingly washed, rinsed, and spin-dried at the ACLU Launderette, responded by complaining about violations of the First Amendment. Coke's decision, he protested, was "an affront to free speech." It was nothing of the kind. The truth is that professional wrestling is an affront to decency, and that the company's act was one of discretion, two nouns noticeably absent from the WWF lexicon.
Customarily, sponsors have gone along with the network copout: "We only give the public what it wants. If viewers didn't watch, we wouldn't run the shows." Commendably, Coke broke with tradition and took matters into its own hands. The action turned out to be historic. Soon afterward, the U.S. Army, AT&T, and Wrigley all decided that they, too, had supported enough junk sport. In dropping out of the TV picture, they joined forces with Wal-Mart, Target Stores, Toys "R" Us, and K-mart, which yanked the Al Snow toy off their shelves.
It was a significant moment in the annals of broadcasting—and business. Within days of Coke's defection, shares of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. had plummeted. In response, the WWF began to make concessions, indicating that it would immediately tone down the violence in SmackDown!, a program airing on the UPN Network. Other modifications are en route.
The point of this showdown is clear. In business today, there are two bottom lines: corporate earnings and corporate responsibility. Companies play a major role in forming social attitudes, and those attitudes don't form in a vacuum. Whether the subject is a half-Nelson on a pseudo-sports program, sadism in a dramatic series, or raunchy material in a sitcom, sponsors can no longer afford to be passive underwriters, ceding authority to the lowest common dominator. They can make a difference. The country's moral and ethical backslide will not be reversed overnight. It will take many small, incremental gestures like Coca-Cola's, and the wrestling ring was an apt place to start fighting back.