OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

The suspense is over. The first advertising casualty of the war against Iraq, falling victim to conflicts over the appropriateness of the contents of a pitch, has been identified: Madonna.

Madonna? Since when has Madge played the ad game? Is she a secret subsidiary of Saatchi & Saatchi? An undercover jingle writer for a music production house? Or perhaps it's Madonna who keeps the books for the Interpublic Group of Companies.

Actually, Madonna has been making ads for two decades, and it's her latest one that landed her in such hot water: the video for her new single, American Life, which was withdrawn just days before its premiere last week on the American cable network VH1.

It's not often acknowledged, but music videos are in actuality commercials, produced by record companies and distributed to TV channels and websites, which typically run them as programming. The song is the product and the artist is the brand.

One big difference, of course, is that a video usually appears without the record label having to pay for the play. Imagine Coca-Cola, Nestle or Unilever making like BMG, EMI or Sony and submitting spots they expect to be shown for free during the Super Bowl.

Madonna long has demonstrated her abilities as a pitchwoman, helping to create, develop and produce some of the best-liked, most-recalled videos of all time, for songs including Express Yourself, Like A Virgin, Material Girl, Take A Bow and Vogue. Of course, she has worked with some not-too-shabby collaborators by the names of David Fincher, Brett Ratner and Herb Ritts - several, not coincidentally, also known for their work on conventional commercials and ads.

This time, though, Madonna was overtaken by events, as releasing the video for American Life became problematic "due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces", she declared in a statement, adding: "I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret" its meaning.

Madonna still might have been able to bring out the video had it debuted in the initial hours of the war, during the days of wine and roses, or shock and awe, when it seemed the fighting would last about as long as a new reality series on ABC. In that brief euphoria, audiences may have accepted - or at least not squawked too terribly over - a video presenting battlefield images, interspersed with a make-believe fashion show with models dressed in military uniforms and ending with a George W Bush lookalike catching a hand grenade that turns into a cigarette lighter.

And if there had been some backlash, just remember Madonna's skills at furthering her career by marketing her music through controversies, especially centred on sex. But at a time when, as The New York Times reported, "an onstage remark against President Bush by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks has led to a widespread radio boycott of the group, Madonna had second thoughts".

Madonna didn't become a brilliant brand-builder in a business that inspired the mocking sobriquet "one-hit wonder" by pushing the envelope much more than the public is willing to accept. Like A Virgin (Atlantic Airways) or the best Madison Avenue ad-makers, she knows when it's best to cross the Borderline and when it's best to Die Another Day.