War: Sponsors take wait-and-see stance

Sep 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

TV advertisers and their agencies are doing little beyond general contingency planning to prepare for a possible U.S. involvement in a war against Iraq, according to an informal survey of key Madison Avenue players.
“Our contingency plans actually go beyond the war,” said the head of one major advertising agency, whose thinking about the effects of a possible war was the most advanced of any the executives contacted. “There are things like, if as a result of the war there should happen to be a retaliation in this country, if it’s an attack on, let’s say, Miami, which we thought was happening a couple weeks ago, if there are no fatalities, for certain advertisers, the recommendation is you stay on [the air].
“It depends on the product. It depends on the campaign,” this senior executive said. “If it’s local and no fatalities, it’s one thing; if it’s domestic and there are fatalities, it’s another. We learned during Sept. 11 that every time these things happen, the public’s tolerance … goes up a little bit, and they want to resume their normal lives as quickly as possible. So if it’s not on our soil, it’s easier to compartmentalize. People right now are more worried about their pocketbook and sending kids to college and what’s happening with their jobs than what’s happening in some godforsaken country half a world away.”
Of course, the war in Iraq might never happen, and if it does it could end quickly and successfully, with few casualties at the front and minimal disruptions back home. But the United States is aiming to strike at Iraq’s dictatorship. Moreover, weeks of press leaks have led to the inescapable conclusion that the most likely time for that strike is in January or February, when favorably mild weather conditions are expected over the Iraqi desert.
If that scenario plays out the great network chess game that is the February sweeps could be swept aside as pre-emptions proliferate and network news divisions take over prime time, much as the fall 2001 schedules were thrown into chaos by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
With the signposts to war printed on the front pages of each day’s newspapers, why aren’t agencies and their advertisers-particularly those breaking expensive new advertising campaigns during the high-profile sports programs of January or the equally high-profile stunts of February-planning for that scenario?
For one thing, there is little direct economic incentive for the agencies to plan. That’s because when spots don’t run, agencies don’t pay.
For another, agencies are accustomed to a seat-of-the-pants process in which they react quickly to sudden network changes. Take, for example, the recently averted baseball strike that threatened to disrupt Fox Broadcasting’s fall-season promo plans and its carefully thought out program-premiere schedule.

“Clients were saying, `What should we do if they strike?”’ one senior agency executive recalled. “Well, you know what [I said,] `Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, because we don’t know what Fox is going to do.’ Fox wasn’t telling us, `Here’s what we’re going to do if there’s a strike.’ [A war is] just not something you can plan for. That’s my gut.”
However, the networks are planning, generally speaking. “We always have contingency plans,” said the head of one entertainment network, “and we’ve all just gone through one [disaster] with 9/11, and we know how to react. We have a book and [we have] guidelines.”
Advertisers who are planning campaigns that are event-based or with a time-sensitive strategic focus do need a fallback position in case of war or other disruptions, said another senior agency executive, particularly if their campaigns include such elements as tie-ins and free-standing-insert drops in national publications.
“War is in the back of everybody’s mind,” said another senior agency executive, who recalled the Gulf War of a decade ago, when some advertisers told their agencies to keep them off the air while the war was under way. If a new war in Iraq begins, some advertisers will react the same way, choosing to stay out of news coverage and newsmagazine shows for the duration; others will make case-by-case decisions as entertainment programming is pre-empted.
Clients with major multimedia campaigns under way will have to “make a decision whether or not to advertise in the replacement programming, if that programming is sponsorable,” this agency executive said. If they opt out “it costs them” valuable exposure and momentum, the executive added.
On the other hand, everyone agreed that the start of a war would mean high ratings for the all-news cable networks and for many other news programs. In those circumstances, even as some advertisers scramble to get off the air, others will be just as quick to take their places, particularly if advertiser defections result in an environment of costs-per-thousand drops even as news ratings soar.
If ratings at CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC spike, expect possible increases in ads from the armed services themselves as well as from major corporations with defense-related products or services, such as Lockheed-Martin and General Electric Co., yet another senior agency executive said. “Likewise, if some advertisers shy away, there may be bargains to be had, so you may see those advertisers who are less concerned, whether it be pharmaceuticals or other companies where environment is less critical.”