Peacock Network: Don't Be Chicken During Crises

New research by NBC finds support for the premise that despite clients' skittishness to keep advertising during national crises, Americans want and really need to see advertising soon after a major national trauma like 9/11 or a military conflict like the war in Iraq.

Two NBC research executives presented the findings Tuesday afternoon at the annual Advertising Research Foundation's Business Intelligence Forum, which was held in New York City. The findings are similar to surveys done by other organizations, but also attempt to determine where Americans draw the line when it comes to advertising.

The short answer: There doesn't seem to be any.

NBC surveyed Americans two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., again in November 2001, and finally in October 2003. What it found was surprisingly consistent results. Not only do Americans think that the country should return to normal as soon as possible, but also they believe that advertising strengthens the economy and performs a public service by sponsoring the programming that kept people informed.



Two weeks after the attacks, 91 percent of those surveyed said that Americans should go back to their normal lives. Eighty-nine percent said that the new TV season, which had been delayed because of the terrorism and the anthrax murders, should start. And 85 percent said that advertising should "go back to normal." NBC's data shows that the support held up in subsequent surveys in November 2001, and again last month.

"They feel advertising is a part of the American way of life," said Janet Gallent, director of primary research at NBC.

But Gallent said the question remained whether advertising was appropriate throughout the dayparts and in all types of programming. The survey attempted to determine at what point Americans would react negatively to advertising. It found that a majority of viewers tolerated advertising throughout the normal programming day, even during the evening news when there's a big story. Only during breaking-news coverage of national crises was there any strong feelings, with responses in the 30-percent range approving of advertising during that time when the surveys were fielded in September and November 2001. But what a difference two years make. When NBC asked the same question last month, 59 percent said it was OK. That piece surprised the network, which had operated under the assumption that most people didn't approve.

"I have no explanation for this," Gallent said.

She said that she had spoken to other researchers who say that the response might be part of a shift in Americans' attitudes toward advertising in the two years since Sept. 11, 2001. Similar responses have come up in other non- NBC studies.

"Americans, past 9/11, have become incredibly positive toward advertising, where before they were not," Gallent said.

The findings are also backed by practice in the spring of 2003, where conventional wisdom surrounding breaking news was pretty much turned on its head. Using the Persian Gulf war in 1991 as a guide, just about everyone from media observers to the networks themselves predicted that up to a week after an invasion of Iraq, there would be wall-to-wall coverage on the broadcast networks. Advertisers wouldn't want to run their spots and the networks, and advertising agencies, would lose millions of dollars in revenues. That certainly was the case following the 9/11 attacks, when the broadcast networks aired commercial-free, wall-to-wall news coverage through the weekend. And it's been the case for big news on television since 40 years ago Saturday, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and the networks stopped commercials and other programming for four days.

Yet this spring, the widely predicted breaks in advertising during the war in Iraq largely didn't materialize, at least on television. The wall-to-wall news coverage didn't happen on the broadcast networks who - given an early jump on the offensive when word leaked of a cruise missile attack to take out Saddam Hussein - got the coverage started about a day earlier than the war actually began.

The Big 4 networks had rather quickly returned to regular programming. Wall-to-wall coverage was ceded to the cable news channels, with sporadic updates and expanded evening news on the network side. Some advertisers moved slower than others back to their advertising schedules, opening up room for direct-response advertisers to snatch up some prime dayparts, but the big chill in TV advertising largely never happened.

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