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A drought in third-quarter 1993 ad spending by the nation's leading megabrands may have turned the year into a yawn for the nation's media.

The spending slump put media in the dubious position of relying on fourth-quarter spending to achieve respectable full-year growth. While traditionally the fourth quarter is the ad season's strongest, the quarter has struggled to recover its pre-eminence ever since the recession hit in 1990.

After strong ad dollar gains of 8.7% in the first quarter and 8.4% in first-half 1993, the nation's Top 200 megabrands slipped to a three-quarter borderline 2.4% growth over the prior-year period.

Procter & Gamble continues to lead all advertisers in ad spending, at $904 million, up 16.1%. Philip Morris Cos. trails at $795.6 million, down 7%.

The Top 200, locomotive for all media spending since Advertising Age began compiling this report in 1989, was finally outpaced by a 3.5% growth in "all other" brand spending for the three quarters.

If ad growth is to awaken for the full year, it would need renewed spending by the powerful auto industry. Unfortunately, that industry's fourth-quarter spending was anything but stellar in '92, declining 1.3% from the prior year.

For the three quarters of '93, Sears stores leaped ahead of the brand pack with ad spending of $373.6 million, more than half the tally generated by newspaper advertising. AT&T measured in at $357.8 million for second place, although its growth of 24.9% far outdistanced Sears' 2.8% uptick from the corresponding period in '92. Newport cigarettes at $24.7 million, down 10.6%, rounded out the Top 200.

Media totals for the Top 200 were largely depressed by declining network TV advertising, down 0.9% for the three-quarter cumulative. All network advertising dipped 1.3% for the period-a cumulative growth deflated by a 10.6% decline in third-quarter spending compared with the Olympic-rich third quarter of 1992. The medium sustained 0.2% growth in first-quarter 1993 and a 6.1% gain in the first half.

Ad Age adjusted prior-year newspaper spending for retailers, auto marketers and financial institutions to reflect growth in retail and national newspaper advertising as monitored by Newspaper Association of America. Newspaper spending from Competitive Media Reporting-one of 11 media monitored for this Ad Age quarterly report-lacks comparable prior-year numbers because of CMR's aggressive new-business foray into more newspaper markets in 1993. Sunday magazine spending for the Top 200 is in their newspaper data.

Current retail advertising in newspapers reflects 4% growth over 1992, while national newspaper advertising trails 1992 levels by 2%. Because these adjustments raise year-earlier totals, rankings for 1992 were eliminated for the Top 200.

Cable TV network advertising growth for all advertisers also was adjusted to reflect growth of same-year cable networks tracked by CMR.

No previous year adjustments were made to cable spending for each Top 200 entry because cable totals remain a minor portion of total spending per brand. On the other hand, newspapers collect just under 20% of Top 200 media outlays.

Auto brands exert strong influence on the nation's ad growth, claiming a fifth of the spending by the Top 200. By extension, the Top 200 annually accounts for about 36% of all media advertising. Spending by the 28 auto brands in the Top 200 advanced only 2.8% for the three-quarter cumulative from prior-year levels.

Data do not point to any measurable turnaround in auto category spending in the final quarter, either. Unit sales growth of 7.9% in the full year dipped slightly from the 8% notched in the first three quarters, according to Automotive News, sister publication to Ad Age.

Profitability, often more of an ad-spending determinant than sales, has escaped many in the industry, particularly the Asian brands.

The auto squeeze largely affected network TV, a medium down 7.3% to $916.3 million for the auto brands in the Top 200.

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