OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

As those who toil on Madison Avenue are turning the pages of their

calendars (or poking their handheld organisers with those tiny sticks),

they're noticing the arrival of a week that usually brings big smiles

all around.



Not this week.



This past Monday was the Labour Day holiday, which traditionally marks

the end of summer, typically the slowest period for advertising in this

country (apart from the hyperbolic pitching for Hollywood's silly summer

movies).



After summer comes fall, the busiest season for advertisers and,

therefore, the most productive, and lucrative, for agencies. Fall means

back to work and back to school. (Some of a certain age can still sing a

jingle from radio commercials for a chain of discount clothing stores

that began: "School bells ring and children sing, it's back to Robert

Hall again.")



Fall brings the start of the new primetime and syndicated TV seasons for

national networks and local stations. Fall marks the start of the new

automotive model year. Fall inaugurates the new season of football,

America's biggest and most popular sport.



And, perhaps most importantly, fall augurs the arrival of the hugely

important fourth quarter on the retail calendar, when shopping for

Christmas gifts swells sales volumes.



All that autumnal activity generates a sense of anticipation not unlike

that felt when you're very young and eagerly await the first day of

school.



This time around, however, agencies are looking forward to fall with all

the enthusiasm that dental patients muster when told they require a

series of root canals. Rather than elated, they're, well,

crestfallen.



The reason? As Bill Clinton's strategists reiterated during the 1992

presidential campaign, it's the economy, stupid. Nine years later, it's

the economy again, as the decline in consumer confidence levels, the

tumbling major stock market indexes and the uncertainty caused by retail

and automotive sales that continuously go up and down like yo-yos have

all combined to leach most of the joy from the upcoming fall season.



"Things get gloomier and gloomier," Hugh Johnson, the chief investment

officer at the First Albany Corporation, told the Reuters news

service.



How happy can anyone be when the light at the end of the proverbial

tunnel, in the form of previous predictions of a turnaround arriving in

autumn, turns out to be an approaching freight train, in the form of

revised forecasts that the recovery will not come until mid-2002 at the

earliest?



"We see no indications that the oft-mentioned 'fourth quarter

turnaround' will occur," says a prominent soothsayer, Jack Myers, chief

economist at Myers Reports in New York.



As a result, Myers has issued what he calls "probably the industry's

most bearish forecast", predicting a decline in ad spending not only for

this year (minus 4 per cent) but for next year as well (minus 1.7 per

cent) - and flat results for 2003.



Not until 2004, when spending will be stimulated by the summer Olympic

Games and the presidential election, does Myers foresee an increase in

ad spending. And that improvement is to bring growth of just 2.7 per

cent, to boot. Zenith Media has now weighed in with a similar forecast,

predicting little growth until at least 2004.



2004? 2004!?!?!??!?! That's a lifetime on the Madison Avenue calendar,

or handheld organiser.



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