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A Quandary in Advertising

September 07, 2002

Commerce and patriotism became uncomfortable bedfellows when airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

For days afterward, advertising uncharacteristically was pushed from the airwaves and front sections of newspapers as media companies dedicated their time and space to piecing together the jagged and painful puzzle of what had happened and why.

When the advertising window reopened several days after the attacks, marketers faced dilemmas: Go with the usual commercial fare and risk offending consumers not ready for business as usual? Turn to public service announcements that deliver a sober message and keep the brand name barely in the public eye? Drape cheerier product pitches in a patriotic blend of red, white and blue?

Concern over how advertising will be perceived has resurfaced as media companies and marketers prepare for a day of remembering on Sept. 11. A recent poll by Lightspeed Online Research Inc. found that two-thirds of respondents did not think that advertising would be appropriate during daylong news programming planned for Sept. 11.

Networks are making commercial time available, but advertisers aren't scrambling to fill it. Some big companies will underwrite special programming rather than break in with commercials. Others will stay away entirely. PepsiCo Inc. has pulled its commercials, as has Sears, Roebuck & Co., which also will put telemarketing calls on hold for the day.

Advertising is supposed to reflect society's concerns--witness the zany dot-com commercials that mirrored America's affair with tech in the late 1990s. So when advertising tiptoed back after the terror attacks, it was with public service messages that mirrored a national desire to pay tribute to heroes and the dead.

The right tone evaded some advertisers. A General Motors Corp. campaign introducing 0% financing drew consumer ire for suggesting that Americans had a patriotic duty to buy a new car. But advertising agencies thankfully produced Super Bowl commercials that entertained without offending.

Television networks, which lost an estimated $300 million in advertising revenue after the terrorist attacks, stand to lose $60 million more on Sept. 11. The revenue will be missed in an industry stuck in a painful slowdown.

But there is precedent for pulling commercials that would be out of place; airlines, for instance, regularly suspend advertising after fatal crashes. Newspapers including The Times are limiting what kinds of ads may appear near anniversary stories on Sept. 11. Some plan ad-free special sections. Americans suffer an incessant daily barrage of advertising. It's good that the industry recognizes when it's time for a halt.

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