The aftershocks from New York are starting to shake the foundations
of British advertising, which is only now getting its head around the
long-term implications of 11 September.
First, the Italian network Testa abandons its plans to invest in a UK
agency start-up, blaming the uncertainty of markets destablised by the
terrorist attacks. Then Omnicom reacts to the crisis confronting
in-flight publishing by merging Premier Media Partners, the publisher of
British Airways' in-flight magazines, with the contract publisher
Redwood. Just to compound the gloom, Tempus, the media group, cuts jobs
in the wake of a downturn in business confidence.
And this may only be the start of the bad news precipitated by a
combination of economic and political uncertainty. The inertia is bound
to be fuelled by the mixed messages coming from consumers. While a
European Commission survey detects a modest decline in UK consumer
confidence since the attacks, a MORI poll suggests economic optimism has
fallen to its lowest level since the early 80s.
Because advertisers and their agencies are unable to gauge accurately
the consumers' collective mood, they have become nervous and
Small wonder perhaps when US radio stations decline to play songs such
as Bridge Over Troubled Water lest they cause offence. At the other
extreme is the danger that some companies misjudge the situation
completely - nowhere is this more likely to happen than in the airline
sector where sensitivity is already being jettisoned in the rush to put
bums back in seats.
At a time of great uncertainty, what's clear is that advertisers of all
kinds will have to be sensitive to consumers whose emotions are raw and
who will be easy to offend. What remains to be seen is whether the mass
slaughter will be seen as the defining moment that will force permanent
changes to advertising's style and tone.
Nor is it possible to predict whether more caring and inclusive
advertising becomes a global phenomenon or is confined to the US.
The only guidance that history can provide is what happened after
Princess Diana's death. The same question was being posed then. Four
years on, you would be hard pressed to find any evidence of
advertising's predicted sea change.