Media companies whose properties provide news coverage are for the first time forcefully seeking to persuade marketers and agencies to reconsider a reluctance to advertise alongside the coverage of calamities.
For decades, many marketers, on the advice of Madison Avenue, have avoided running commercials and advertisements that would appear in news coverage deemed too downbeat or depressing. The rationale for that reflexive reluctance was a belief that it would be counterproductive to make pitches to consumers who were being made too anxious to consider shopping as they watched words and pictures devoted to events like wars, violent deaths or terrorist attacks.
"The conventional wisdom is that advertisers don't necessarily want to be there" when news environments are dominated by cataclysmic coverage, said Edward R. McCarrick, publisher at Time magazine in New York, part of the Time Inc. division of AOL Time Warner. "But there is no conventional wisdom at a time like this."
So since Sept. 11, Time and the other newsmagazines, television news channels and newspapers have been urging advertisers and agencies to rethink their longtime sensitivities. Business executives from the news media are developing or reworking sales presentations, commissioning surveys, distributing "open letters" to media buyers and running trade campaigns, all intended to generate additional ad dollars or woo back skittish clients - crucial goals when revenue was already weakening on Sept. 10.
"For us to go out there and say, `Resume business as usual,' sounds self-serving," said Larry Goodman, president for sales and marketing in New York at CNN, the cable news network owned by AOL Time Warner, "but President Bush has made that almost a daily mantra: `Let's get back to our normal lives.' "
The efforts being made by the news media's sales forces are focused primarily on two arguments. One is that consumers seem comfortable, at least for now, with the coverage, as evidenced by huge increases in circulations and ratings, to levels not seen in years, if ever.
For instance, at The New York Times, retail single-copy sales last month increased 37 percent from September 2000. At USA Today, single-copy sales through last week were still ahead of last year's levels by 15 to 20 percent. At Newsweek, some issues are selling 10 times the usual number of copies on the newsstands, with similar results at Time and U.S. News & World Report.
At CNN, ratings are as high as 4 times normal levels, and they are up 11 times among viewers ages 18 to 34 - one reason the channel just landed its first movie advertiser seeking younger audiences, the Columbia Pictures division of Sony, for "Riding in Cars With Boys."
Ratings for a CNN competitor, the Fox News Channel, are 2 to 5 times what they were previously. "We're saying we're covering the most important story, and our audience is extremely committed, which will make them pay attention to your commercials," said Paul Rittenberg, senior vice president for advertising sales at the Fox News Channel in New York. "This may be the most efficient advertising buy advertisers ever make." The channel is owned by the News Corporation.
Janet L. Robinson, president and general manager at The Times, said that "we're letting our advertisers know about the circulation increases" for newsstand copies and home delivery. The company is also sharing letters and e-mail messages from readers to demonstrate that "the papers are being read with such involvement, which can correlate with the effectiveness of the advertising," she said.
"That's not to say they don't request the A-book, because they do," she added, laughing. The reference was to companies wanting to run ads in the A section of The Times; most news coverage related to terrorism appears in a new B section called A Nation Challenged, which has been running without ads.
The other point being made by the sales executives is that, as Mr. Goodman of CNN put it, "this story is going to be with us for a while, in one incarnation or another." Therefore, they assert, withdrawing to the sidelines to wait it out may gravely harm companies dependent on the sales stimulation that ads can provide.
That is also part of the approach at Newsweek. "I just met with one advertiser who is very dependent on response" among consumers to each print ad the company buys, said Greg Osberg, executive vice president and worldwide publisher in New York for Newsweek, adding, "This advertiser has stayed with us and seen a lift in sales."
"The dilemma for advertisers," Mr. Osberg said, "is that they're seeing more interest from consumers in news vehicles, and that's going to be sustained, but they have a different level of comfort with that type of editorial environment. So we're trying to manage that very carefully." For example, he said, "just as we usually let advertisers know what's coming so they've an opportunity to pull out, we're now letting them know about opportunities where the environment might not be as controversial," like in feature sections. Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post Company.
William Holiber, publisher at U.S. News & World Report in New York, which competes against Newsweek and Time, said that a lot of discussions the newsmagazine was having with advertisers centered on defining the publication as "an environment that's helping people understand these difficult times and helping them make decisions that affect their lives."
As a result, "we're getting interest from advertisers not usually focused on the newsweekly category," he added, "and we're hoping they'll follow through." U.S. News & World Report is owned by Mortimer B. Zuckerman and Fred Drasner.
At CNBC, Pamela Thomas-Graham, the president and chief executive, said, "In terms of outreach, we're taking responses from consumer research done by NBC that are specific to CNBC and showing them to advertisers." CNBC, the business news cable network in Fort Lee, N.J., is part of the NBC division of General Electric.
Those responses are centered on data that "show viewers are ready to hear advertising messages because they say those messages help drive the economy," Ms. Thomas-Graham added, "and our viewers in particular are interested in getting the economy restarted."
At USA Today, owned by the Gannett Company, "it's a matter of accommodating" various categories of advertisers, said Tom Curley, president and publisher in Tyson's Corner, Va.
There has been less demand for travel advertising than for advocacy advertising, he added, referring to campaigns meant to change opinions rather than sell products. But several travel advertisers "have started to come back," he said.
At Time, Mr. McCarrick wrote a letter addressed "To Our Friends in the Advertising Community," which was wrapped around copies of the Oct. 8 issue and sent to agencies. "Terrorism and war are not topics of our choosing," he wrote, "but as the leading news-gathering magazine in the world, they are something we are obligated to report on."
Time is also updating its trade campaign, by the New York office of Fallon Worldwide, part of the Publicis Groupe, by introducing ads with more topical themes. One, scheduled to appear next week, shows a photograph of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as if he were on the cover of Time, with a headline reading, "The mayor that never sleeps."
"It would be hard for me to tell my clients they should be out there advertising," Mr. McCarrick said, "if I didn't put my money where my mouth is."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. October 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.