The scramble by marketers and agencies to adjust advertising that is perceived as inappropriate in the wake of the terrorist attacks last week is proving far more difficult than had been anticipated.
As advertisers, agencies and media companies that are being bombarded with angry and concerned calls and e-mail messages are discovering, withdrawing or changing commercials and print ads is turning out to be much harder than it was during the most closely comparable past events. Those would include the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the start of the Persian Gulf war and the Oklahoma City bombing.
The complicating factors this time range from varying standards of taste among different parts of the country and the rapid-fire news developments that continue unabated to logistical mix-ups and the inability to adequately gauge public opinion so soon after the attacks.
What happens on Madison Avenue during a national crisis is typically little more than a sidebar to the coverage that really matters. But advertising is being closely watched in this instance because of the potential stimulative effects of the estimated $250 billion in ad spending this year on the consumer economy, which had already been slowing before Sept. 11.
Advertising "can and will play a crucial role in moving the country forward as we continue our recovery," O. Burtch Drake, president and chief executive at the American Association of Advertising Agencies in New York, the industry trade organization, wrote in a letter sent to members.
At the same time, the association "is aware of the gravity of the current situation and the mood of the nation," he added, urging member agencies and their marketer clients "to exercise sensitivity as they begin to resume advertising."
In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Drake explained why he sent the letter, thought to be the first such advisory to members in the organization's 94-year history.
"There's certainly been nothing like this in my experience," Mr. Drake said. "It seems different from everything else."
Yet advertising "is how the economy works," he added, "and how the media can afford to do what they do."
While "ultimately it's the agency acting on behalf of the client to determine the appropriateness of advertising material in print and on the air," Mr. Drake said, "the media need to have a more heightened awareness, too."
That was demonstrated by an outpouring of complaints from readers and advertisers about the Sept. 24 issue of People magazine, which was remade at the last minute to devote its entire editorial content to coverage of the attacks. Like issues of People covering the Oklahoma City bombing or the Challenger explosion, all the regular advertising appears in the issue, which came out last Friday.
But because of what People executives described as the chaotic conditions at their Midtown Manhattan office on the afternoon of Sept. 11, when the decision was made to remake the issue, they did not notify advertisers about the change in contents until after publication. In some instances, ads appear opposite graphic photographs of carnage — usually a no-no in magazine publishing — and some of those ads even make jokes about airlines and flying.
"We've had conversations with a good majority of the advertisers, and people have been understanding," said Nora P. McAniff, group president at People in New York, part of the Time Inc. division of AOL Time Warner.
"That doesn't mean they are not upset and angry," she added, "but they understand we can't undo what happened."
"It didn't even dawn on me to call anyone; maybe I was in shock," Ms. McAniff said. "We went on autopilot and did what we typically do."
"This is totally devastating," she added. "We'll do whatever we can to indemnify them."
To start, Ms. McAniff is sending long explanatory letters to the 300 readers who have complained so far, in which she writes, "With the luxury of more time, and a clearer head, I would have made a different decision." A briefer letter from her to all readers is to appear in the Oct. 1 issue of People, which is coming out today. The ad problems at People were reported on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal.
Other problems are taking place on television, particularly with programs that are syndicated, that is, sold station by station across the country. Those programs are often delivered 10 days or more in advance, with the commercials already included.
That is why, for example, a commercial for Duracell Ultra batteries was still running this week in which a plane and its pilot were seen plunging toward the ground until a boy who is controlling the plane with a joystick as if it were a toy shifts its course. The plane and pilot then climb safely skyward.
"We took immediate action with our agency Tuesday to stop it from airing," said Ann Davin, a spokeswoman for Duracell in Bethel, Conn., a division of the Gillette Company, but some program syndicators "were unable to carry out our instructions to remove it from their programming on such short notice" because "the commercials are integrated into the programming."
Ms. Davin said that Duracell and its agency BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group were optimistic that the syndicators and stations would now be able to edit out the spot.
Speaking of flying, there has been widespread speculation that the Microsoft Corporation is being forced to change its coming major campaign to introduce the Xbox video game system because the ads had carried a theme like "Fly with us."
Susan Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Microsoft agency, McCann- Erickson Worldwide Advertising in New York, said, "We're looking at all our spots and there is no big revamp." She said the speculation might have stemmed from reports last week that Microsoft would indefinitely delay the release of a new version of its Flight Simulator computer game and had removed some images of the Manhattan skyline, including the World Trade Center, from the game's Web site.
In another instance of the difficulty advertisers are having in determining what to do, the two principal soft-drink marketers are taking divergent paths for now in peddling their flagship brands.
The Pepsi-Cola Company division of PepsiCo will "continue to suspend national advertising" for the Pepsi- Cola brand, "taking it on a day-to- day basis," said Dave DeCecco, a company spokesman in Purchase, N.Y.
"If you look at Pepsi advertising, it's all about joy," he added, referring to "The joy of Pepsi," the brand's theme, "and right now that's not what the nation is feeling." The Pepsi-Cola agency is also the BBDO New York office.
The Coca-Cola Company, however, plans to resume commercials for its flagship brand, Coca-Cola Classic, by introducing tomorrow a spot featuring the baseball player Cal Ripken Jr. and his daughter, Rachel, at his ballpark, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
"We had planned to break the spot this weekend," said Mart Martin, a Coca-Cola spokesman in Atlanta, and would proceed because "we believe America is ready to welcome an ad about a retiring sports hero who represents perseverance and dedication."
"Cal Ripken plays a game that defines to millions of people what's good about America," he added, "and that's another reason why we think it's appropriate."
But something will be missing from the commercial, created by the McCann-Erickson New York office: the recently introduced theme for Coca-Cola Classic, "Life tastes good," that was to run at the end of the spot.
"Clearly, for the time being," Mr. Martin said, "we don't think it's appropriate."
STUART ELLIOTT, September 21, 2001 The New York Times
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.