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Public mood challenges advertisers


Americans are almost evenly divided about whether companies should note in their advertising what they are doing to support victims of Sept. 11, according to a poll released yesterday by a Boston firm that specializes in cause-related marketing.

The poll suggests that advertisers should now practice ''thoughtful patriotism,'' said Carol Cone, founder of Cone Communications Inc. The poll also found that about 75 percent of 1,000 consumers interviewed thought it was appropriate for advertisers to resume business as usual.

Still, many advertisers face a dilemma. On the one hand, they don't want to offend anyone with ads that may be construed as flagrant commercialism. But with the economy slowing down, many have little choice but to attempt to stimulate sales.

''Companies have to restoke consumer demand,'' said Stephen A. Greyser, a professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School.''

One possible solution, he said, may be cause-related marketing - marketing that aims to blend a sales pitch with a worthy cause. The trick is to find the right balance between patriotism and salesmanship without seeming to exploit a tragedy.

''Certainly, no one wants to anger consumers or make people feel you're callous,'' said Kathleen Seiders, a marketing professor at Babson College.

Immediately after Sept. 11, many companies scrapped the sales pitches and ran ads that expressed sympathy or outlined their plans to help victims. Now, two-and-a-half weeks later, polls have found that consumers may be ready for traditional advertising again.

But because consumer moods can swing wildly in such uncertain times, Boston ad agency Arnold Worldwide has initiated weekly ''mindset'' surveys to ensure that the branding messages of its clients strike the right tone.

''Brands need to communicate,'' said agency president Francis J. Kelly III. ''But you have to make sure brands are communicating appropriately.''

Another local ad agency that has done a lot of polling after Sept. 11 is Mullen of Wenham.

''The world has changed for marketers and consumers,'' said Mullen chief executive Joseph Grimaldi. ''We have a real challenge ahead. This isn't merely about selling products and services anymore. It's about helping consumers decide what's now important or unimportant in their lives, connecting with those new priorities and communicating in ways that are honest and inspiring first, entertaining second.''

But at Boston University, associate professor of communication Sue Parenio isn't sure that ads that combine patriotism and commerce can be both tasteful and effective.

''I think it's awkward to cross-breed,'' she said. ''Either go back to your regular advertising or make a corporate statement. But don't do both or you can hit a wrong note.''

In the case of radio and TV, some ads that aired before Sept. 11 now run in new places.

At the moment, many companies are reluctant to air ads during news programming; they'd prefer their ads to run during sitcoms and sporting events, said Kristi Argyilan, media director for Boston ad agency Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos.

If Argyilan had any doubts about such a strategy, they were erased after she watched NBC's Katie Couric conducting wrenching interviews with families of victims. Couric faded out, and a commercial break kicked off with a perky ad for Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centres. The unintended juxtaposition was so jarring as to negate the ad's effectiveness.

''Emotionally, you're in such a different place,'' and a lighthearted ad in such a context can offend viewers, said Argyilan, who noted that in a viewer's mind, TV ads can sometimes take on the color of the TV programming, or environment, that they are aired in.

In TV and radio, ''environment is everything,'' she said.

Dunkin' Donuts, a Hill Holliday client, cut back on airing ads during TV newscasts for much of the past two weeks, she said. There were concerns that viewers who had just watched coverage of grisly disaster scenes might not appreciate the Dunkin' Donuts ad theme of, ''Loosen up a little.''

After a two-week suspension, Verizon Communications resumed product advertising on Wednesday. Asked about the timing of the decision, spokeswoman Catherine Lewis said that Verizon was ''taking cues'' from President Bush.

''He's emphasizing that America should get back to work so we thought it was appropriate'' to resume product advertising, Lewis said.

In trying to promote an economic recovery, Bush and other political leaders may be immunizing advertisers from criticism that they have been too quick to resume business as usual, suggested Seiders of Babson College.

''The government's messages of, `Go back to your routine, go shopping, spend money' - they're going to legitimize a return to commercialism,'' she said.

At Hill Holliday, Argyilan noted that ad agencies continue to monitor the news closely so that they can revise ad campaigns at short notice.

Said Argyilan, ''We have to know what the plan will be when the war gets real.''

 

Chris Reidy, The Boston Globe. September 28, 2001

Copyright © 2001 Globe Newspaper Company. All rights reserved.