EDITORIAL: Caution is the rule in uncertain times

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

ultra-cautious.



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.



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