March Auto Ads Decline

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Automotive advertising, the biggest local TV ad category, is beginning to reflect the dramatic drop in auto sales. That has contributed to a flat first quarter for broadcast-TV spot sales.

"We're starting to see car cancellations in March," says Pete Stassi, SVP/local broadcast director, PHD (Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge/Mercedes). The 6.7% drop in auto sales in February was even steeper than January's 2% decline.

Maribeth Papuga, SVP/director of broadcast, MediaVest (Kraft/ P&G), sees a tightening in spot sales by the end of the quarter, largely a result of NCAA March Madness. As for auto buys, she insists, "from what we're seeing, they're still spending."

Financial analysts, such as S.G. Cowan Securities, project 13.3% overall auto-industry growth this year. Says Stassi: "We're hoping for a better April."

The Television Bureau of Advertising recently released 2002 revenue figures showing local broadcast spot up 14%, with fourth-quarter gains in 22 of the top 25 major categories. Only travel, computers and soft drink/snacks were down.

TVB President Chris Rohrs insists that those gains will continue, despite a looming war. "Anxious consumers want to watch TV. That's not a bad situation for TV [advertisers]."

But Blair TV President/CEO Leo MacCourtney says war-related issues made for a flat first quarter. "Broadcast spot was very strong on pacing, then slowed down dramatically in February. We thought we'd have a stronger March, and we didn't." Still, he adds, pacing for April, May and June, looks "stronger" then last year.