OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

One of the most popular weapons in the advertising arsenal is borrowed interest, using someone or something more familiar than the product to pitch in on the pitching. But how appropriate is it if what's being appropriated is not a famous face or song but a war?

Most marketers will steer clear of associating their goods or services with something as inherently hellish as war, not to mention one such as Operation Iraqi Freedom that has been so especially polarising. But after the first shots are fired, and the rally-round-the-flag impulse takes over, there are exceptions to every rule, particularly in the first blush of battle against a member of the "Axis of Evil".

Are ads with war themes, festooned with star-spangled bunting and banners, smart marketing or are they tasteless warnography? You be the judge after examining some examples that have appeared in American media in the days just before and after 19 March, when the first missiles flew toward Baghdad.

NBC News rushed out ads proclaiming that NBC and its cable TV siblings, CNBC and MSNBC, were the most-watched networks in America on the first night of the war, complete with bar charts comparing their combined viewerships with those of broadcast and cable competitors - all identified by name - such as ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox News Channel.

Ads for Jarhead, a new book about a Marine's service during the (first) Gulf War, featured in giant letters an approving blurb from Newsweek magazine urging consumers to read it "if you want a clear-eyed sense of what might be going on today" in Iraq.

A headline on the AOL Broadband website's homepage, under the logo "War on Iraq", blared: "How Saddam Fights Dirty: Fake Surrenders, Child Soldiers and Human Shields Slow Allies." Other news sections of the homepage printed their headlines on backgrounds coloured khaki and olive green.

A Pepsi-Cola commercial that premiered during the Academy Awards showed Beyonce Knowles singing on a set that looked like Times Square, complete with an American flag waving on a giant screen.

"The Biggest Names in News are on XM Satellite Radio," declared ads that asserted the service "keeps you connected" to unspecified "world events" and "late-breaking news, no matter where you go". (Only one non-American radio network was included in the ad: BBC World Service. Shades of the "Special Relationship".)

Pratt & Whitney ran ads showing soldiers in front of a huge US flag, with the headline: "The Mission May Be New. But the Objective Remains the Same."

Pratt & Whitney, with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, ran advertising for the F/A-22 Raptor Air Force fighter under the headline: "Revolutionary Combat Performance. An American Tradition Since 1776." (So much for the "Special Relationship".)

Ads peddled collector figurines of a newsboy hawking patriotic papers (called "Proud to Be an American") and a soldier boy carrying a gun (called "Lord, Bless This Defender of Freedom and Keep Him Safe in Your Hands").

Perhaps all that's left is to sell sponsorships of the war to advertisers.

The first buyer might be a certain seller of personal-care products, to commemorate the initial meeting of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair at which the former, when pressed for what the two had in common, replied: "Well, we both use Colgate toothpaste."