Radiated Distress

Brunico had a large delegation in Manhattan the morning of the attacks.

Brunico had a large delegation in Manhattan the morning of the attacks. It was supposed to be the day the Golden Marble Awards were put on by Strategy’s sister pub KidScreen magazine. Thankfully for our collective grey hair count, news came in fairly soon that they were all right. Though communications were sketchy that day, our Manhattan crew and our Toronto office were linked in that we were all watching the CNN coverage which became a global forum as different time zones awoke to the horror. And now, everyone involved in media decisions is trying to comprehend what has changed and how to react to that.

Before Sept. 11, one of the biggest issues facing Canadian marketers was how to cope with a recession. In addition to reduced consumer and business-to-business spending patterns brought on by fears of less disposable income, marketers must now also deal with the short-term and potential longer-term changes resulting from fears for personal safety, shifts in lifestyle priorities, and new logistical complications like delays in travel and the distribution of goods.

In the thick of the events on that Tuesday, a commercial was being shot in Toronto. While half of those assembled were glued to CNN, the other half were trying to get a dog to nod. The surreal spot production scenario eerily parallels how those working in the marketing trenches have to come to grips with the strange dichotomy of needing to forge ahead with the mundane, while the theatre it’s all destined for has changed.

While TV channels were scrambling to readjust their skeds to be sensitive to the sombre mood, and trying to forecast when people will be receptive to returning to a more entertainment-driven mix, it was with a sense that no one knows how long the shift to news-centric media will last. Immediately Hollywood decided to put on hold or alter certain films due to content, networks held off on fall TV activity and many marketers pulled ads during the days that followed. People are gauging it day-by-day, but considering that events which had an infinitesimal impact on the world compared to this turned a healthy chunk of the population into long-haul news junkies in the past, this should profoundly affect media decisions.

That doesn’t mean light-hearted fare will be displaced. The following weekend’s top-grossing box office, the feel-good family flick Hardball, is an indication of what people are up for in terms of diversion. Given historical programming preferences during times of tragedy and conflict, comedy, family and variety are predicted to strike the right chord, while anything too dark or violent, such as crime dramas, not so much.

Everyone involved in any aspect of media is coming at it with a very different set of sensibilities. Perhaps it’s because so many people have personal ties to the events, ranging from family tragedy to sixth-degree-of-separation ‘my friend’s friend was there on Monday…’ Suddenly it’s a very small world again, and this newfound common ground/global village neighbourliness is pulling us back from what had been increasingly isolated niches.

These are still very early days to identify significant medium and long-term changes in consumer behaviour. If, as we can only pray, no more terrorist activity takes place in the near term, we still don’t know the duration, severity, and impact all of the security and reprisal measures about to be undertaken.

Despite the uncertainties, and although product features, communications and the promotional mix may need to change, this is a time and an opportunity to build brands and their emotional connections with consumers.

A shift towards news, politics, work and family could have many dividends – reality television, the ultimate oxymoron, certainly deserves to be an early casualty. Today’s tougher reality will challenge marketers’ mettle, and who knows, perhaps television won’t continue to be the no-think zone it was until Tuesday – it’s harder to amuse and inform than to shock or provide eye candy.

If Letterman is making people cry, maybe the Peter Pan generations finally grew up.