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How to Advertise in Wartime
By Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
© 2003, Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

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Wartime advertising is not the minefield of angry public reaction that many advertisers fear. It is, however, a delicate endeavor with a few potential pitfalls to avoid. The uncertainty of how to proceed has caused many marketers to pull back and wait. So, before we look at how to advertise in a war, let's address a major concern of many advertisers, and that is: whether or not to advertise at all. Many fear it would be disrespectful to our troops --especially when the incidence of casualties may be high. Other advertisers are concerned that it may offend an American public worried about our troops and the outcome of the war.

Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is to look to the troops themselves. Based on the interviews with soldiers that I've seen, our men at war would consider it to be more disrespectful if we were to stop advertising. They want us to continue living our lives as normally as possible because that is what they are fighting for. And, when they're on leave from the battlefield, they want to enjoy a bit of that normalcy, themselves. The last thing they want to see is a fearful environment here at home. And, it's not just for the troops, it also serves to keep our spirits up here at home.

On a more constructive level, we should keep in mind that companies that stop or cut advertising will lose sales... or worse: hard-earned market-share. No one can afford that for long and stay in business. We must remind our advertisers that maintaining brand awareness is an on-going process.

In short, when we curb our normal business practices, it hurts the economy; which in turn becomes a morale-boosting win for the enemy. One of the most important things we can do on the home-front is to keep commerce healthy and continue to export the American concepts of free markets and free minds.

With that said, let's look at how advertisers can best communicate with their customers and prospects in this troubled time. The obvious advice is to proceed with discretion. It will be very important to become sensitive to the mood of the target audience, and secondarily to others who may also be exposed to the ad.

One way we can get a feel for that mood is by stepping up customer service to our advertisers. The more we talk with them, the more we'll learn about what they are hearing from their customers. This is the information that will guide us in what to say in our ads. Plus, by demonstrating empathy for our client's business, we'll be cementing a long-term relationship.

Some media will be affected by audience mood more than others. TV advertisers, for example, will need to exercise the most caution because of the proximity of their ads to the actual sights and sounds of war. Newspaper and radio advertisers will need to do this to a lesser degree. The more distance a particular medium or brand has from the fighting, the less the audience mood will become a factor for consideration.

Many advertisers fear that this climate of apprehension is causing people to curb their spending, but the fact is, (so far), that consumer spending is still on the rise. They are simply spending differently. Generally speaking, people are making fewer impulse purchases; instead they are being more thoughtful before parting with their money. Some are looking for greater value. Others are trying to overcome their guilt for enjoying luxuries in turbulent times. If we take the time to understand the root of their hesitation, then we'll be able to communicate with them better, and move them closer to making a buying decision.

Meanwhile, all of the usual advertising motivators -- those emotions which move consumers either into or out of their comfort zones -- are still at work. It's how we position them -- in relation to the war -- that has changed. People still have legitimate needs and desires that ought to be fulfilled regardless of what is going on in the world. If we want them to continue buying products and services from our clients, then we need to get their attention and motivate them -- the same as always. The trick will be in making certain that our messages are not in bad taste, and this we will have to address on an ad-by-ad basis.

A specific example would be to avoid the use of humor. Humor is not universal and someone is likely to be insulted. Typically, (in peacetime) those who are insulted are not an ad's target audience, so it doesn't matter. However, in wartime, we should be more sensitive to the opinions of non-prospects because they can still create bad publicity that no company can afford.

Advertisers should also be extremely discreet in depicting the American Flag and / or proclaiming support for America's troops. A company should never appear to be exploiting the war in any way.

When possible -- as a way of appealing to people who are curbing impulse purchases -- use information-based ads that will enable them to make a rational decision on buying. Another tactic is to use response-advertising to find out quickly if your message is on target or not. If your client is not experiencing an increase in traffic -- then the ad is not working -- change it! And, if the ad is insensitive in any way, you've given people a method in which to let you know. Keep in mind that war conditions may change rapidly, so be prepared to change an advertisement's message in a moment's notice.

All-in-all, advertising is vital in troubled times because it encourages consumer spending which keeps our economy strong. Those companies that continue to advertise will be better positioned for growing when the war ends. At the end of the 1991 Gulf War (which also rode on the tail of a recession) business returned quickly and grew vigorously. Companies that maintained a marketing message throughout the war grew the fastest of all.

Finally, keep in mind that what is perceived as a crisis to one person is seen as an opportunity to another. Whether it's enjoying the reduced cost of traveling abroad, picking up bargains on the stock market, or helping clients become more visible to the consumer by advertising when others are not, try to find where the opportunity lies for you.

Robert Wilson is an advertising consultant and speaker, contact him at www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.

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