War is no time for a blackout

How bad for brands is the war likely to be? Not nearly as painful – in the short term – as it will be for media owners, especially commercial TV stations.

These, dependent to a greater or lesser degree on advertising revenue, find themselves in an unpleasant double bind. On the one hand, they are suddenly obliged to provide unbudgeted and extraordinarily expensive round-the-clock news coverage of events in Iraq; on the other, they are squeezed by advertisers applying a self-denying ordinance on current ad campaigns, for fear of offending. The effect was evident after September 11. But there is reason to suppose it will be amplified during the present war.

What is unfolding may lack the immediate traumatising horror of the terror attacks, but its duration will be longer and its cumulative effects on viewers’ and readers’ emotions may be even greater. The scale of US commitment to this war will be bigger than anything since Vietnam, and while this campaign is no Vietnam in the making, 24-hour coverage, ’embedded’ reporting and ruthless propaganda are bringing to screens a harrowing realism that could only be guessed at in the late Sixties.

Media owners have no choice but to compete in portraying this landscape. Efforts to ‘sanitise’ reporting with self-imposed censorship are likely to unravel, as CNN recently demonstrated when it broke ranks over footage of the first US POWs.

Advertisers face what appears a lesser dilemma. Their immediate concern must be to gauge public sensitivity and calibrate activity accordingly. At one extreme, they can go ‘totally dark’, declaring an ad moratorium until further notice. This path has been favoured by a number of high-profile US advertisers, such as Mastercard, Toyota and (in the UK) Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. Understandably, advertisers wish to avoid charges of trivialising war with consumerist messages or, worse, cynically exploiting any ‘entertainment’ value war might be perceived to have. But there are flaws to this blanket stratagem. The first is that it smacks of tokenism: long-term application would self-evidently be commercially suicidal. Suppose, as seems likely, the war goes on for some time: what will these advertisers do then? Allow less sensitive competitors to take advantage? Even if rigorously and sincerely applied, there is something negative and unsatisfactory about going dark: presumably advertisers would wish to bolster the economy rather than sabotage it.

Most advertisers, however, are proving more pragmatic. Many TV stations and newspapers have set aside war coverage as an ad-free zone and advertisers, Procter & Gamble among them, are happy enough to go along with this. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola and Nestlé have said they are in no mind to change strategy. Some, like Britvic launching its new drink Freekee Soda, have in any case little reasonable choice.

The key reckoning for brands – at least for the iconically US ones – may come later, long after everyone has forgotten about TV schedules. As Professor John Quelch recently pointed out, depending upon the outcome of the war and the degree of anti-Americanism it generates, there may be a price to pay in consumer boycotts and their knock-on effects on margins.

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