Advertising and entertaining are necessary in tough times

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It's difficult to write about the war in an advertising magazine. But it is impossible not to. One problem: This column is written almost a week in advance of publication. Who can know what will happen before you read it? But "normal" life is only possible currently as seen through the prism of the conflict in Iraq.

For most of us writing for or reading Advertising Age, normal life is the business of advertising and marketing. It is easily dismissed as a trivial subject, particularly in times such as this.

And in this context, yes, advertising can seem a jarring distraction-like the commercial I saw interrupting Aaron Brown (no easy task) on CNN. It was for lawn seed, or some such other prosaic gardening product. (I was too surprised, and not green-fingered enough, to recall the brand.)

Nevertheless, a surprising number of marketers-as I write-unexpectedly have decided to continue advertising. I say "unexpectedly" only because so much time and space has been devoted to the likelihood of them pulling out (particularly from the March 23 Academy Awards show). As with so much of the coverage in the war's first two weeks, that "news" proved unreliable.

Why should advertisers pull out, either from the Oscars or from programming that is not news coverage of the war? When we can clear our heads of the understandable emotional conflicts that rage as a result of both our attitudes to the conflict's morality and, then, the resulting and inevitable sad news of setbacks and horrors, we must surely see that advertisers should stay on air.

Not all of them, obviously. The travel and airline industries have particular problems that may make it smarter for individual corporations within those sectors to pull their ads. The same may apply to certain financial-services products, some luxury goods and others.

But we need most everybody else to stay out there because we need to keep feeding a battered economy, about to be further suffocated by the $75 billion or so that a month of war will cost.

What's more, there is not only room for entertainment and humor in commercials, there's a need for them. There is no "death of irony" even now. Irony helps keep us sane. It is a matter of taste, of being sensitive. I was going to write "simply a matter," but there is never anything simple about that subject.

Sometimes I wonder if I can no longer be shocked by commercials. But that's in part a tribute to the industry's self-regulation on both sides of the Atlantic. It was surprising (after consecutive days of bleak incidents involving helicopters in the Gulf) to see, during the Oscar telecast, a Mercedes-Benz commercial that featured a helicopter chase. But there was no ill intended. In general, one trusts the ad industry to regulate itself. And, more cynically, cautious advertisers will do anything to avoid negative press.

A desire to see advertising continue is but one tiny part of our collective desire for what passes as normality in these uncertain, turbulent days. It has a pragmatic benefit to the economy, but its more subtle contribution, to the greater role of the entertainment industry in helping us through dark days, cannot be overlooked.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity

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