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FIRST-PERSON: Rosie O’Donnell’s new PR challenge: how to spin her same-sex preference

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–In the world of television, where ratings rule and success is measured in advertising dollars, image is not everything — it’s the only thing. None has taken more care in the crafting of image than Rosie O’Donnell.

Those in television once described their industry as broadcasting. No more. The object of the TV game has become — with the rare exception of the occasional cultural event — narrow casting. Television programs, and even sports telecasts, now have as a goal to reach and hold the attention of a target audience.

No one in television has done a more masterful job in reaching and keeping a niche audience than Rosie. The woman Time magazine once called the “Queen of Nice” dominates the soccer mom market. This she has accomplished by portraying herself as normal and as mainstream as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.

Many women feel they relate to Rosie. She is not model thin and doesn’t seem to care. A single parent, she became one in the most noble of ways via adoption. For years she has teased about the schoolgirl crush she has on Tom Cruise. The causes she champions center on women and children. Tuning into Rosie is like showing up at a celebrity slumber party. Her shows are one big hug.

Rosie’s sweet image is not without blemish. On a 1999 show she took actor Tom Selleck to task over his support of gun ownership. Many observers felt her cross-examination of Selleck was tacky, especially when it was noted that Rosie was a spokesperson for K-Mart, who at the time was one of America’s leading distributors of firearms. Later it was revealed that anti-gun Rosie had bodyguards for her and her children who carried guns.

Rosie showed tremendous savvy in navigating the public relations challenge. Her first step at damage control was in severing her ties with K-Mart. She then answered the charge of hypocrisy by asserting that when it came to her children she would do what was necessary in order to insure their safety. Rather than coming off as inconsistent, Rosie’s audience saw her as a woman of integrity — eschewing K-Mart’s advertising dollars — and courageous, the brave she-bear protecting her cubs. A potential PR disaster was parlayed into positive spin.

If Rosie’s followers are anything, they are intensely loyal. The maker of Scope mouthwash found this out the hard way. In 1996, Scope released a poll naming Rosie as one of the least kissable celebrities. “The Queen of Nice” was not amused. She struck back and urged her viewers to say no to Scope and yes to Listerine. In no time Scope was deluged with e-mails from people saying they were doing as Rosie had instructed.

Rosie is soon to find out how just how loyal her target audience really is. In her memoir, to be released in late May, she is expected to come out of the closet and admit that she is a lesbian. Though Rosie has a few times in the past teased and insinuated that she might be attracted to the same sex, she has always done so in a tongue in cheek manner.

It is no coincidence that the timing of Rosie’s admission coincides with the end of her talk show on May 22. If she were really the courageous crusader her carefully crafted image would lead us to believe, why is she waiting until her show is history before announcing her sexual preference? It is clear that Rosie is unsure how her target audience will receive her announcement. If focus groups had indicated there would be no ramifications from her coming out of the closet, she would have done so long ago. While America is embracing homosexuality as normal and natural like never before, many still believe it is morally and biologically aberrant.

I anticipate Rosie will lose some of her target audience. Some soccer moms will abandon her because they believe homosexuality is wrong. For others, her coming out is simply going to be too much information. Just how many followers she will lose remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: Rosie’s revelation will prove to be a barometer on the moral health of America. Once she officially comes out of the closet, we will have a good indication of where our nation stands on the issue of homosexuality. Nothing personal to the “Queen of Nice,” but I hope her image suffers with soccer moms and those who love them.
Boggs, whose column appears in Baptist Press each week, is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.

    About the Author

  • Kelly Boggs