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Ad world makes war preparations

The winds of war already are blowing on Madison Avenue. As the United States braces for a showdown with Iraq, the advertising industry is quietly putting itself on a wartime footing.

Marketers are sticking "war clauses" into contracts to avoid having their ads next to violent images or grim news. American Express is one that is insisting on the "flexibility" to instantly yank ads, or to replace lighthearted TV or print ads with more serious fare, says spokeswoman Judy Tenzer.

Advertisers are poring over their TV and print ads to identify work that consumers might deem offensive depending on war news. The quick-response strategy was on display last week: Hewlett-Packard yanked its "Explorer" TV ad featuring an astronaut within hours of the shuttle loss.

Marketers and ad agencies are figuring out what to do if the TV networks switch to "commercial-free" prime-time war coverage as they did for several days for the Sept. 11 attacks and the Gulf War.

Big industry players report a hold by some advertisers on committing cash to support new products or ad campaigns.

"We're seeing people being more cautious about making decisions," reports Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, the giant that owns ad agencies Ogilvy & Mather, Y&R Advertising and J. Walter Thompson. "There was a recession. Then 9/11 exacerbated it. Now the prospect of an invasion is adding to the level of caution."

History supports the caution. The U.S. media market "went due south" for two months after the Gulf War in 1991, recalls ad forecaster Jack Myers.

After 9/11, the TV networks lost $1 billion in ad dollars with wall-to-wall news coverage. While much of that money dribbled back into the market, the damage was done. U.S. ad spending dropped 9.8% in 2001, according to spending tracker CMR, the worst hit since the Great Depression.

The fear on Madison Avenue is that an invasion of Iraq will bog down into a long conflict, hurt the overall economy and put a bullet through the emerging recovery in U.S. ad spending. "If this thing is protracted, it could reverse some of the gains we've seen in the market," warns Mel Berning, president of U.S. broadcast for MediaVest Worldwide.

One thing that is likely to pick up in the event of war is a return of some of the patriotic advertising seen in the months after Sept. 11.

"It's only natural," says WPP Group's Sorrell.

Posted on aef.com: February 12, 2003


Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY. February 9, 2003

Copyright © 2003 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.