What To Market -- Or Stop Marketing -- On TV During And After Big Disasters

For weeks or months, I had been seeing a certain ad on cable news networks. It begins with a typical home filling up with water, and has a voiceover talking about homeowners being misinformed about protecting their home. It's for the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Considering that the commercial has been on cable news media schedules for some time, the opportunity for viewers to see it now -- so soon after Hurricane Sandy -- means something more.

Media planners don't always make immediate major adjustments to their media buys, especially when big news events take over the airwaves. It can be bad timing -- or good. Will people now get more flood or hurricane insurance?

The presidential candidates, for the most part, pulled back on their TV commercials early on, out of respect for real-life -- and death -- events. But late in the day on Tuesday, political ads resumed.



With almost 10 million people out of power, much of this is simple media arithmetic: There are simply less people with access to the powerful TV medium. Still, half of U.S. consumers have smartphones, and that means communication -- personal and/or commerce messaging  -- is still possible. As long as one's batteries hold up.

In the coming days, TV commercials for general homeowners insurance may not get a lot of airplay. But commercials for other insurance -- healthcare and supplemental medicare coverage from companies like Humana and United Healthcare -- which also were in regular rotation before the hurricane, could be found running after the weather event, in keeping with those marketers’ target of older news viewers.

Media and marketing executives are typically sensitive to big news events. Big ongoing tragedies -- like 9/11 -- blew out all advertising for long periods on many networks.

But even with lesser news events, TV commerce should take a break, letting TV do what it does best: offering public, noncommercial service for consumers who need it.

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