Merchants of Death?

The outbreak of war in Iraq two weeks ago had a significant impact on media in the United States, online and off-. Americans flocked to their nearest television set or computer monitor to get up-to-the-minute information on the precise location of the Army’s Third Infantry Division (3ID, for those in the know) and shots of the 101st Airborne Division parachuting into Northern Iraq.

Viewership ratings for the cable news networks during the first week of the war soared. Nielsen Media Research reported Fox News and CNN respectively averaged 5.6 million and 4.4 million viewers in primetime during the first week of the war, nearly quadrupling their average primetime viewing audience for the same week last year. MSNBC showed even greater improvement, increasing primetime viewership by 651 percent versus the same week last year, although it drew an average of just 2.2 million viewers in primetime during the first week of the war.

Internet media properties gained users due to the war as well. comScore Media Metrix reported visits to,, and all increased by over 200 percent versus historical averages during the first 24 hours of the war. and drew 5.9 million and 5.6 million users to their respective sites on Thursday, March 18. Interesting to note,’s daily Web site visitors outperforms MSNBC’s primetime audience by nearly 3.4 million.

Of course, huge increases in viewership and Web usage have not translated into increased advertising revenues. Television media entities made the decision to pull advertising during the initial phases of the war, mimicking the strategy they employed immediately following September 11. Advertising Age estimates that during the war’s first 48 hours over $100 million in network, cable, local, and syndicated TV advertising was pulled.

Online media entities followed suit by removing advertising from their pages. reports,, and the home pages for AOL News, Time, and Money all suspended advertising for a 48-hour period during the first week of the war. Online media properties obviously fell into agreement with their television brethren on the decision that featuring advertising during such a serious moment in our country’s history is unwise.

Media buyers aren’t exactly arguing with the decision of TV and online media properties to pull advertising. The last thing marketers want is to have ads for their products appear directly after grisly images from the battlefield. Then again, someone more cynical than I may view the video of Army supply lines winding north through the rough Iraqi terrain as a product placement coup for Hummer.

At the same time, advertisers aren’t convinced a complete advertising blackout is necessary. An article on quoted one retail executive as saying, “We don’t want to pull our advertising… We just don’t want our ads in TV newsmagazines that feature war coverage.”

Media entities and marketers are slaves to the consumers they try to impress. It’s no surprise consumer research studies in this area have been commissioned to understand what the American public is willing to accept. The same article reported results of a study sponsored by MediaVest that was completed in early March. It found:

  • 70 percent of viewers do not find advertising offensive during a war or conflict, as long as it runs in non-news programs.

  • 71 percent believe it’s appropriate for networks to air commercials two days or less into or immediately following a “national crisis.”
  • 60 percent believe wartime commercials should not be of a humorous nature.

It seems obvious media entities and marketers have taken the research to heart and want to prevent negative consumer reaction.

One group seems to have missed the message: online premium content sites that feature streaming video. These sites are using war footage to promote their monthly, fee-based service offerings. RealOne SuperPass’s home page boasts “America at War” for just $9.95 per month. Yahoo Platinum features “War with Iraq: Special Coverage,” again for a monthly fee of just $9.95. Even employs celebrity spokesman General Tommy Franks to drive users to a page to where they can sign up for paid video content.

These organizations are clearly using war footage to sell their services, hoping when the war’s over subscribers will stick around. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it disturbing these organizations would try so blatantly to use the war to generate profits. I’d like to see results of a consumer research survey that asks consumers their opinion on pay-per-view war footage.

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