Marketers Take Wait-and-See Approach to Ad Plans

With one of the longest buildups to a war in recent history, marketers had ample time to negotiate war clauses with media companies and produce Plan B strategies—toned-down spots or delayed product launches—as war approached. At press time, however, most were holding to schedules as permitted and taking a wait-and-see attitude toward ad activity in the coming weeks.

“We’re not planning on pulling anything yet,” said Kylie Watson-Wheeler, director of advertising for Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo. “We’re in constant communication with our agency [Leo Burnett] about what’s appropriate. If we need to move media, we will. “

Shortly after war broke out last Wednesday, many marketers, including AT&T, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Verizon, said they were pulling their TV ads, at least for 48 hours or so. But with the networks and cable news channels offering continuous news coverage without commercial breaks, the pullout became a moot point.

Even so, several companies, including Toyota, aired spots when NBC and CBS switched out of war coverage Thursday, while ads continued on cable stations that were not running 24-hour war coverage.

But some advertisers changed plans as a matter of taste: EarthLink decided to pull ads for at least a week, because its creative mentions the Internet service provider’s “rocket speed” and its ability to “bomb spam.”

Others were proceeding with plans to air spots on Sunday on ABC’s Academy Awards, assuming it was not pre-empted, with Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi-Cola saying they would air spots deemed “appropriate.”

Laura Desmond, CEO of MediaVest, New York, said most of the shop’s clients, which include Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Kraft, created contingency plans two weeks ago.

The real test for marketers, however, will come when the broadcast networks resume regular programming, which, given their estimated losses of some $20 million in ad revenue per day and the quick pace of the Iraq invasion, could be this week.

“If you haven’t done scenario planning for, during or after the war, your marketing plans are in serious danger of becoming irrelevant in a couple of weeks,” said former Coca-Cola chief marketing officer Stephen Jones, addressing a New York audience.

Only a few marketers announced plans to delay launches. Polaroid said it was mulling whether to bow its One digital camera on the planned date, April 8. And Frontier Airlines has put off a $10 million branding campaign—its first—indefinitely.

“In terms of making an impact, they’re not going to make [one] with a new campaign at this time,” said Brendan Murphy, partner at consultancy Lippincott Mercer in New York.

As for U.S. brands’ reception overseas, attacks on McDonald’s and KFC outlets in Muslim regions and a bomb threat at a Citibank in Egypt are the most extreme examples of a backlash. But the long-term detrimental effects of the war on American brands may prove to be far more subtle.

“Brands play a political role. They are in many ways our country and what we stand for,” said James Gregory, CEO of CoreBrand, a Stamford, Conn.-based brand consultancy. “If the war is over very quickly, we’ll have the chance to get back on track. [But] we’ll have some repair work to do.”

Others say American companies have insulated themselves well by reflecting local tastes. “Brands work very hard to instill themselves in local culture,” said Murphy.

—With Kenneth Hein