OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Madison Avenue has gone to war, to borrow a cigarette slogan from the 40s. Will one of the first casualties be the fledgling recovery of the American advertising economy?

Agency executives are anxiously awaiting the initial determinations of just how much they may lose as a result of the attack on Iraq. Even before the Pentagon launched its missiles at Baghdad, ad spending in media such as newspapers and radio was starting to slow as marketers headed to the sidelines rather than dispense dollars while consumers were distracted from power-shopping by the spectre of the upcoming conflict.

Then, in the first 24 hours of Operation Wham, Bam, Kick Out Saddam (or whatever clever moniker the Bush administration is adopting to help market the battle), the major national broadcast television networks and many of their cable counterparts pre-empted regular programming - along with paid commercials - for the kind of continuous coverage known as "wall-to-wall".

But the longer "wall-to-wall" lasts, the harder agencies will find themselves being pushed up against the proverbial wall. By one estimate, each day that spots do not run results in $114.1 million worth of commercial time being displaced from national networks as well as local broadcast stations.

That hefty sum does not include the revenues to be lost by local and national magazines and newspapers, from pulled print ads; by local stations and national networks, from cancelled radio commercials; by interactive media, as websites remove banner ads along with larger, more costly pop-up and pop-under ad units; and even by direct marketers, as direct mail, e-mail marketing and telemarketing are curtailed or suspended. (The Direct Marketing Association helpfully has advised its members not to send any ad mail to soldiers overseas.)

Not all pitches are vanishing from the media. TV networks that are "narrowcasters" instead of broadcasters or cable-news specialists, eschewing Iraq coverage - among them Animal Planet, Discovery Civilization, ESPN, Golf Channel, Nickelodeon and SoapNet - are carrying regular commercial loads. The major home-shopping networks such as HSN, QVC and ShopNBC are busily conducting business as usual, peddling their porcelain tchotchkes, Diamonique jewellery and cut-rate designer apparel.

Also, many print media are continuing to publish ads in their sections or departments not devoted to the war, such as sports, arts, health and food; one major news weekly, US News & World Report, is publishing issues with two covers, with the second, and all contents thereafter, designated as a war-free zone.

Still, the amount of advertising being lost from skittish marketers seeking to avoid being associated with coverage of death and destruction has become a subject of intensive scrutiny and speculation. That seems strange when one considers that it's typically standard operating procedure, dating back to World War II, for major media to offer the public news of war and other crises with few or no ads. For example, in November 1963, the big TV networks stopped showing commercials for more than three days after President Kennedy's assassination.

Perhaps it's another example of how the impact of 9/11 still lingers, in that Americans now equate ads with normality because the terrorist attacks swept spots off TV for almost 100 hours. The answer may be even simpler: There are more media reporters now than in 1941, 1991 or even 2001.


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