Hallmark Channel reverses course after yanking same-sex wedding ads, apologizes for 'hurt'
NEW YORK — The Hallmark Channel is reversing course on its decision to pull ads for a wedding-planning website that featured two brides kissing at the altar.
The cable channel was hit with bitter criticism on social media Sunday, with the hashtag #BoycottHallmarkChannel trending on Twitter and celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres and William Shatner assailing the decision.
“The Crown Media team has been agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused," said a statement issued Sunday by Hallmark Cards CEO Mike Perry. “Said simply, they believe this was the wrong decision. ... We are truly sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused.”
The ads initially were pulled when conservative advocacy group One Million Moms, part of the American Family Association, complained directly to Bill Abbott, CEO of Hallmark parent Crown Media Family Networks.
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.”
Wedding-planning company Zola had submitted six ads, four with lesbian couples. After Hallmark pulled those ads, but not the two featuring only opposite-sex couples, Zola pulled its remaining ads.
On Sunday afternoon, Zola tweeted, "All kisses, couples and marriages are equal celebrations of love."
Mike Chi, Zola’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement to USA TODAY that the company was troubled when the commercials were rejected but relieved by Hallmark Channel's reversal.
"We are humbled by everyone who showed support – not only for Zola, but for all the LGBTQ couples and families who express their love on their wedding day, and every day," he added, saying the company will be in touch with Hallmark in the coming days about a potential return to advertising.
Advocacy group GLAAD also cheered the reversal and thanked everyone who spoke out: "LGBTQ people deserve to see ourselves represented on all TV networks."
Earlier, GLAAD called the decision to remove Zola's ads "discriminatory and especially hypocritical coming from a network that claims to present family programming and also recently stated they are 'open' to LGBTQ holiday movies."
Hallmark, which is in the midst of its heavily watched holiday programming, called the controversy a distraction Saturday.
But Molly Biwer, senior vice president for public affairs at Hallmark, said in an interview Sunday night that from the time the initial decision had been made, “Crown Media had been in agony over the hurt that this had caused. Hallmark has an unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
She added that the reversal, and not the original decision, “truly reflects who we are as a company. We celebrate all families.”
“Across our brand, we will continue to look for ways to be more inclusive and celebrate our differences,” Perry said.
One marketing analyst said the network should have seen the PR crisis coming.
“They should never have accepted the ads if they weren't willing to stand up for them," said Paul Argenti, a Dartmouth College professor of corporate communication. "If you didn't believe in gay couples getting married, why did you take the ads in the first place?”
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 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,” asked of Hallmark: "didn't you all get the memo?"
“All the groovy gay ladies i know won’t be watching your Christmas schlock,” she wrote on Twitter.
DeGeneres simply asked: "Isn't it almost 2020?"
"Put the commercials back!" Shatner said.
The Hallmark decision was also mocked on “Saturday Night Live,” and Netflix 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 controversy came as Hallmark appeared to be considering more same-sex content.
Asked about the possibility of films based on same-sex relationships, Abbott told The Hollywood Reporter in mid-November: “We’re open to really any type of movie, of any type of relationship."
Contributing: The Associated Press