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Returning To The Ad Front

Every time a war starts on TV, the first casualty is the commercials. Their number is drastically reduced, or they disappear from the screen. Why is that?

As soon as the bombs started falling on B-Day - March 19, this time - the commercials went on hiatus. Networks and their coalition allies, the advertisers and Madison Avenue agencies, hid behind the couches.

The reduction in messages from the sponsors could even be mistaken by the wandering viewer for a commercial blackout, an alarming anomaly. Why this knee-jerk reaction to war makes it seem as if commercials are something as easily rolled up as the red carpet after the Oscars.

And then, suddenly, after a few days or a week into a war, the commercials returned in almost prewar industrial-size strength. It is as if there had been an all-clear signal, one of those sounds heard only by dogs, network executives and advertisers. And there was the freedom to be as inane and silly as usual.

All of this has a disquieting, destabilizing effect on viewers that has never been analyzed. I don't understand it.

It's almost as if there were something evil about commercials. They have to be interned and kept away from the population at large for some reason that is never explained

Are they in bad taste? Do they interrupt the story? Are they annoying and generally offensive? If so, why should they be on during normal peacetime programming?

If the juxtaposition of commercials and events is too tragic or horrific, why aren't they banned from the regular news?

The standard news show is filled with news about life and death. People are being killed every day on the news. It's about bus and car crashes, tornadoes, floods, fires, mud slides, earthquakes, snowstorms (considered disasters here in the New York area) and other terrible things real or imagined.

In truth, commercials serve another important function in news programming: the subtext, as scholars call it.

Commercials are an escape from the news.

You can be watching a story about famine in Ethiopia, or 500,000 Hutu being slaughtered by the Tutsi in Rwanda. Just as you're feeling bad about man's inhumanity to man, the thoughtful moment is interrupted by a commercial that takes your mind off it. Feeling blue? Fly away to a sandy beach in beautiful Jamaica. Can't afford it with the lousy economy? Don't worry, Visa will lend you the money. Need a car? Hertz will put you in the driver's seat.

True, this makes it difficult to be concerned about issues raised on the news. But that is the collateral damage of commercials.

After 75 years of broadcasting, we have mutated to the point where we need pauses for a few words from our sponsors, even if a brief message can last long enough for an oil change and lube job. Our kidneys as well as our brains have shrunk.

There is another subtextual message in the resumption of commercials after the hiatus. It means this is going to be a long war.

Canceling or cutting back commercials is OK for a few days. It can be considered a form of tithing or patriotic contribution to a belief in a jiffy war. But why should the networks and their coalition allies on Madison Avenue suffer unduly?

All things considered, I would think advertisers want to increase their advertising in time of war coverage. Viewership increased fourfold in the case of Fox News and CNN during the first week of the war.

There are some advertisers who especially should want to buy commercial time at the start of a war, when things are going so well. Consider the military-industrial complex companies that could run spots extolling the virtues of their products.

"Look at that explosion," a pro-war celebrity spokesperson could explain. "That's our bomb."

It could be argued, of course, that the companies might not want to draw attention to themselves, should there be a congressional investigation of militaty malfeasance later on. Only the high-profile names - like Martha Stewart - involved in questionable deals get the heat.

TV viewers are largely unaware of who makes what. "They might think Raytheon is a new fabric made by Dupont," economist Dennis Ainsworth explained. "I have a new suit made out of Raytheon."

The makers of Patriot missiles ran into this kind of problem after the Gulf War. Despite the hype on TV news at the time about the infallibility of the missiles, they seemed to have missed almost all the time. "You notice in the Defense Department procurement contracts," Ainsworth explained, "there is no warranty on an any of these things."

Leaving aside the fact that corporations such as GE own both military suppliers, such as AM General Corp. (Humvee), and TV networks (NBC, MSNBC, CNBC), the relationship between advertising and news is a perplexing issue bound to come up continually in what could be the start of the new Hundred Years War.

Posted on aef.com: April 18, 2003


Marvin Kitman, Newsday.com - April 13, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Newsday, Inc. All rights reserved.