Bin Laden Death Means Ads Can Run in News Reports from Ground Zero

Tuning In: Talk of 9/11 Once Sent Marketers Fleeing

By Published on .

Remember when Osama bin Laden was a person alongside whom no one wanted to advertise?

Nearly a decade ago, marketers of all stripes pulled their commercials from coverage of the horrific attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001. So awful was the tragedy that marketers benched their ads for days, accounting for more than $300 million in lost ad revenue on the somber day itself as well as the four days following, according to CMR, now known as Kantar Media. The ad-tracking firm estimated the four big broadcast networks lost $188.4 million, or around 49% of their weekly takes at the time.

Not so in 2011. What was once too tragic to comprehend -- the cold and calculated bombing of structures that epitomized American industrial and military might -- appears to have lost its shock power. Expanded one-hour evening news broadcasts by CBS, ABC and NBC will emanate from Ground Zero in New York tonight and remind us of the attacks masterminded by bin Laden. But a full complement of advertising is expected to accompany it all.

Time heals many wounds, and its ability to stitch this one back up is fascinating. Subject matter advertisers once found taboo now seems quite palatable.

Marketers' nonchalant take on the current news breaks noticeably from their stance a decade ago. Not only did they yank commercials in the days after 9/11, but they remained hesitant around the date for a year afterwards as well. In 2002, for instance, advertisers including Coca-Cola and American Express took commercials out of rotation around Sept. 11 out of respect for the somber tone of the event or out of fear of appearing too cavalier about the incident. In 2002, spending on local-, broadcast- and cable-TV advertising totaled about $57.8 million on Sept. 11, down 54.6% from the average amount spent in the five weekdays prior to that date, according to the firm.

Not until 2003 did marketers feel comfortable enough to treat Sept. 11 as one more ordinary day. One big factor: TV networks, many of which commemorated the fateful day with tributes and news programming, largely started opting for a more normal schedule. Indeed, that year, Viacom's UPN launched a sitcom called "The Mullets" on Sept. 11, while the WB network unveiled two new programs -- "Steve Harvey's Big Time " and "Run of the House."

Images of the attacks also aren't as shocking as they once were: 9/11 footage has been broadcast many times, from a popular CBS documentary on the subject to specials about the now-fallen World Trade Center that have appeared on channels owned by A&E Television Networks.

But the biggest change in the story is yesterday's twist at the end. Where the mournful narrative was once one of defeat, tonight's coverage will include a victory.

Advertisers once treated 9/11 as they might a plane crash (after which ads are often required to be pulled as a matter of course or contract). It was the sort of event no one wanted to buttress with commercials or hype -filled screeds. Tonight, with the latest chapter of this ongoing saga leaving a better taste in consumers' mouths, advertisers seem to be telling us they're ready to sell, rather than sit on the sidelines out of trepidation or respect.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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