Wartime sensitivity poses dilemma for nation's advertisers


When the first missiles struck Baghdad, Toyota Motor Corp. pulled its advertising from prime-time television and its print ads from the news sections of the nation's newspapers - right in the middle of its big March sales promotion.

"We did decide to pull the advertising from prime-time news programming," said Diana DeJoseph, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales USA. " ... Our ads are cheery, with a lot of people jumping up and down, and we just don't feel it's appropriate. We want to make sure we're respectful."

With war raging, the nation's advertisers are confronted with standing by their campaigns, altering them to suit the more somber mood of the country or abandoning them.

The issue is delicate. Advertisers don't want to offend viewers and lose sales, but they also know that disappearing from view makes it harder for them to sell their products.

The dilemma for executives at newspapers and radio and television stations is whether to hold advertisers to contracts and risk losing them down the road, or to release them and lose money when the economy is weak.

"Any time TV and radio become all-consumed with news of this importance, a lot of advertisers get very nervous about being out there," said Paul Allen, chairman and chief executive of Allen & Gerritsen Inc., a Boston advertising business. "It's normal to have some instant reaction and want to distance yourself from what's going on."

Talbots, a Hingham, Mass.-based clothing retailer with $1.6 billion in annual sales, made a decision similar to Toyota's.

"We scaled it back where we could," said Margery Myers, a spokeswoman for Talbots, whose advertising budget for this year is $62 million, including its catalog production. " ... Retailers are a reflection of what's happening in our customers lives, and we need to act accordingly."

But advertisers who want to be discreet have found it not so simple to pull or move advertising, because at least some television stations are balking at releasing them from contracts.

Initially, media buyers at MGH, a Baltimore-based advertising and public relations firm, met resistance when they tried to move ads on behalf of two clients who wanted to be removed from news programming in the initial stages of war. Only after lengthy discussion did the out-of-state television stations, whom they declined to identify, agree.

"It's not a matter of revenue in these times. It's a matter of sensitivity," said Jane Goldstrom, media director at MGH. "It's an emotional thing with these clients. I think if an advertiser doesn't want to be on the air and affiliated with any of this kind of programming, they should be allowed out."

One of the clients, Weight Watchers, has shifted away from serious news content, Goldstrom said.

"They don't want to be close to any news programming," Goldstrom said. "They want to be in escape programming."

Another client, Papa John's, also wanted to step away from news programming when war began.

"I think Sept. 11 was so huge, and it affected our business so substantially that clients are more sensitive to what can happen if you advertise during wartime," she said. "Does the public see you as not a sensitive advertiser? Does the client want to take a chance on the public viewing them in a negative way?"

Still, for MGH client, Talk America, a local and long-distance phone service in Michigan, it's business as usual.

The same decision was made by beer marketer Anheuser-Busch Inc.

"If the networks and cable channels continue with regular programming, we will continue to advertise with messages from a pool of existing [advertising] that are appropriate to the programming," according to a statement from the company. No further explanation was available from company officials.

As advertisers ask to pull or move advertising, newspapers, radio and television stations see revenue drying up just as their job of news coverage gets more expensive, Allen said. The problem is exacerbated by the poor economy, he added.

The media companies must decide whether to enforce no-cancellation clauses and risk alienating customers over the long term, or give in and lose badly needed revenue.

"I can assure you right now that at the same time that CNN and CNBC are doing a good job of covering the war, they're meeting with every advertiser to firm up commitments," Allen said. "What everyone isn't seeing is the backroom panic."

Although, Allen said he understands clients' desire to slip out of sight, he warns them of the risks of doing so.

"If I pull myself out and be silent, I might not be the only one who's silent. But I may still lose mind share and subsequently lose market share," he said. "There's a danger to going dark. If you turn off communications, you're turning off future customers and future business."

Beyond the financial ramifications, keeping advertising in place actually helps foster a sense of normalcy, others say.

"I think that the public has grown accustomed to seeing ads," said Abe Novick, senior vice president at Baltimore-based Eisner Communications Inc. "Frankly, ads have become a part of our culture. Therefore, I don't believe the public is going to be all that offended if an advertisement comes on for a headache remedy in the midst of war-related programming. To start to take off advertising begins to take away from who we are as Americans. I question whether that's what the population wants. We still have to live out our lives and be Americans. And advertising is a part of that."

As advertisers plan for the future, some envision a return to the patriotic spots and print ads that appeared after the terrorism attacks of September 11.

But industry experts say it will be risky for advertisers.

"Because there's a sense of ambivalence among many Americans about this war, it could be costly for marketers to associate themselves with a political point of view, as many did after 9/11," Novick said, "For advertisers, planning and mapping out an upcoming ad campaign, veering to the political left or right is dangerous until they know what's ahead."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad