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Editorial: Bailout With Ad Support

While no one needs a bailout right now more than newspaper or television station owners, from the news coming out of Washington it looks as though neither is at the top of the list if and when the government finally starts writing checks.

But those who qualify or have already gotten government help—especially banks and other companies in the financial services sector—will continue to be under intense scrutiny for how they spend every dollar, a trend that is already in full swing since the government started arranging different types of support for many of these firms.

We are all for everyone from the media to the government watching these companies and their spending like a hawk. However, there is one aspect to this that can go too far, and that is the stigma some of these companies may feel to market themselves, especially on television. And it goes beyond companies getting government help; it seems many companies are gun-shy about buying spots in big events like the upcoming Oscars for fear of public scrutiny. (See related story: ABC's Oscars Ad Battle.)

It is very easy to find out the price tags of television spots—especially in a massive event like the Super Bowl where ads can run into the millions per 30 seconds—add them up and then question whether taking a spot was worth it to a bank. Return on investment in television advertising is a gray area that will continue to be debated, no matter how good audience measurement gets.

But these companies need to attract new customers and get their old ones back, they need to establish trust with the public, and they need to get messages out about what they are offering to consumers. And television is still the easiest way of doing this on a large scale.

And while it seems en vogue to rip companies for marketing themselves—whether it is TV advertising or sports stadium naming-rights deals—the media members who do it are essentially shooting themselves in their already-battered foot. We're not arguing against media oversight, just media overreaction that plays into consumer fears instead of putting them in perspective.

Letting bailed-out banks, for instance, launch big marketing campaigns only stands to stimulate multiple sectors of the economy; it (hopefully) brings in more customers to those institutions, and it (definitely) puts ad dollars in the hands of struggling media companies.

The only reason companies spend billions on advertising is that it works, and when it works, people buy goods and services, which is what the economic stimulus package is all about. Advertising is an investment, not an unrecoverable expense. And in this case, it is an investment in the economy.

Marketers will have to be smarter and more economical, and so will the companies putting out increasingly scarce bucks, but browbeating already struggling companies into axing their ad budgets will hurt, not help, the economy.