Ad Sector Is Quiet as Rescue Bill Passes

NEW YORK Business leaders last week went on a public relations offensive to convince average Americans — and, more importantly, Congress — that a proposed $700 billion financial rescue package was vital to resuscitating the U.S. economy. The blitz was designed to communicate the point that the financial mess is a “Main Street” issue affecting millions of consumers, and not just a bunch of Wall Street fat cats who got too greedy. It seems to have done its job: Last Friday, a revised plan passed the House of Representatives after passing the Senate two days earlier.

One business sector, however, remained surprisingly mum during the offensive, given the billions of ad dollars at risk with the economy at the precipice: Adland. While leading marketers like Procter & Gamble and General Electric spoke out, ad groups, including the key trade associations and agency holding companies, were silent on the topic, preferring to let their clients and others speak out on the issue if they so chose.

“We have not taken a stand,” said Dan Jaffe, evp and head of the Association of National Advertisers’ Washington office. “It’s not that we aren’t interested, but we try to husband our resources to focus on more purely advertising issues versus general business issues.”

A rep at the American Association of Advertising Agencies said the organization also had no plans to weigh in on the financial crisis. “It’s not on the agenda,” the rep said, declining to elaborate further.

Agency holding company reps essentially said the same thing.

In contrast, business titans such as Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, P&G CEO A.G. Lafley and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt had leapt into action by way of various media outlets and direct contact with the nation’s political leadership. They argued that the government had to do something or face dire economic results.

Buffett and other business leaders began their full-court press after the U.S. House of Representatives defeated a proposed rescue package last Monday with a majority of members calling the plan a “bailout” they couldn’t support. The defeat, however, sent the markets into a death spiral that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummet almost 800 points.

P&G’s Lafley, in a rare public stand, wrote an op-ed piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer last Thursday about how the credit crunch was squeezing a number of the company’s suppliers, resulting in potential problems for the entire Ohio economy. Lafley’s solution: “Swiftly develop a proposal we can all support. … This is truly a Main Street issue and we all have a stake.”

Buffett, who invested $3 billion in GE last week, appeared on PBS’s Charlie Rose where he called the crisis a “financial Pearl Harbor” that without government aid could lead to an economic depression akin to the one in the 1930s. He also likened the economy to a heart attack victim and said that Congress needs to “spring into action.”

Immelt, a GE spokesman confirmed, lobbied hard by phone with numerous congressional members for passage of the bill, while other senior GE executives did interviews with local media around the country.

“Our message was that the crisis is hurting middle America,” said a GE rep. “Something has to happen and it has to happen fast,” he said, referring to a rescue plan.

While a few advocacy ads for and against a rescue plan appeared in newspapers with a national audience, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, such ads did not seem to hit the TV airwaves, at least not a lot them.

“The conversation plays out” in our programming content, said a CNBC rep.