Saudi ads nixed by cable nets

Apr 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

At least nine national cable networks have turned down a potentially lucrative-though controversial-ad schedule from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. No national cable networks are known to have accepted the ads.
The 10-day flight is an image campaign from the Arab nation. The tagline for the spots is “The People of Saudi Arabia-Allies Against Terrorism.”
National cable networks that have passed on the Saudi spots include A&E, AMC, Bravo, History Channel, Lifetime, USA Network and The Weather Channel. In total, the Saudis plan on spending more than $10 million on image advertising.
“We had a raging debate,” said a senior marketing executive at one of the cable networks approached to run the two 30-second spots.” I looked at the tapes. I thought they were tastefully done,” said this executive, who, citing the issue’s sensitivity, asked for anonymity. “I didn’t like the end line, `[Allies] Against Terrorism.”’ This network ended up walking away from a buy that was worth approximately $300,000 to $400,000, the executive said.
Both 30-second commercials feature print on a screen, music in the background and voiceover narration. One features a quote by President George W. Bush, the other a quote from Secretary of State Colin Powell. The ads demonstrate misperceptions about Saudi Arabia by showing statements about the desert nation that at first appear to be negative and then transform into what were actually positive remarks by either the president or the secretary.
One of the spots, for example, starts with the appearance on the screen of a “misquote” from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the effect that “Saudi Arabia has been prominent among terrorist organizations”; the visual then dissolves to the “correct” quote: “Saudi Arabia has been prominent among the countries acting against the accounts of terrorist organizations.” The voice-over narration intones, “Prejudice, fear and conflicting views can distort what you see and hear. Please keep you eyes, ears … and especially your mind … open.” On screen, the tagline is seen.
The second spot begins with an on-screen “misquote” from President Bush that reads, “The Saudi Arabians have been less than cooperative.” That dissolves into the real quote: “As far as the Saudi Arabians go … they have been nothing less than cooperative.” The voice-over for this spot is, “Read the editorials, tune in to the Sunday morning news shows or listen to talk radio if you want opinions. Listen to America’s leaders if you want the facts.”
A second major cable network called in its legal department before deciding to reject the ads. “We always want to take the money,” a senior advertising executive at this network said, but the are “not appropriate for our brand.”
“We turned it down,” said yet another senior ad sales executive at a third national cable network. “We asked them to revisit the creative or we cannot run it,” the executive said, adding that the network’s standards and practices department had been involved in the rejection.
Not every major cable network has been approached on behalf of the Saudis, however. One senior ad-sales executive said his prominent ad-supported networks had not been approached to air the ads. But “if they have an upfront budget, bring ’em on,” he said.
Creative Cable Television, a cable-television media buying agency based in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Alexandria, Va., is trying to purchase the spots on behalf of the Saudis. Barbie Johnson, Creative’s CEO, at first told Electronic Media that national buys had been made. Subsequently, she said that buys have been made through local multiple cable systems operators and interconnects in “about 21 markets.” These spots will be inserted locally on eight cable networks.
So to viewers in those markets, the ads may appear to be on the eight national cable networks, even though time has not have been bought from the networks.
“They’re trying to get in the back door,” one network spokesman said.
Ms. Johnson expressed the hope that the national networks would pick up the ads after they received positive initial local response. “I wouldn’t use the words `turned down,”’ she said of the national networks that so far have declined to run the Saudi spots. “I would say there are networks that are waiting so that they’re not the only ones on the air, and they are looking to see what the reaction is of the public.
“I’m not doing this for Saudi Arabia, I’m doing this for the American public,” said Ms. Johnson. “The hope is to give balance to the [Saudi] image.”
A pro-Saudi TV ad campaign was already airing last week in Washington and a handful of other markets, according to the Reuters wire service. Ms. Johnson said she was not associated with that campaign, nor had she seen it, though the spots, as described in the Reuters report, were the same two.
Ms. Johnson said she is not placing her Saudi spots in New York or Washington. Both of those cities were targets of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
The CCT Saudi advertising campaign coincides with last week’s visit of Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, with President Bush.