A month after the terrorist attacks on the United States, Madison Avenue is wrapping itself in red, white and blue in an outpouring of patriotism not seen in mainstream advertising since World War II.
Already, though, there are complaints about the inappropriateness of using profound symbols for commercial purposes from critics who are concerned that the trend is more jingoistic than patriotic and more exploitive than altruistic.
The flood of patriotic imagery ranges from American flags and tricolored bunting to fireworks and renderings of the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam with their sleeves rolled up, ready to fight. The phrase "United we stand" is being seen almost as often as "Clearance sale," and "God bless America" is being heard almost as often as "And now, a word from our sponsor."
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon stimulated a revival of patriotic fervor among consumers that was echoed within hours by marketers, advertising agencies and media companies. Flags were unfurled in television commercials and print ads as well as on Web site banners, signs and billboards. Broadcast and cable networks like NBC and MTV began draping their logos and studio windows in stars and stripes as publications from Parade to Premiere added flags to their covers.
The patriotic pitches are coming from companies large (Anheuser- Busch, General Motors, Kmart, small (Manhattan Mini Storage, National Wholesale Liquidators, Top Tomato and Key Food supermarkets) and in-between (Kenneth Cole, Florsheim, Lands' End). Some are not companies at all but organizations and associations like Major League Baseball and Cotton Inc.
One critic, Allen Adamson, managing director for the New York office of Landor Associates, a company that specializes in advising marketers on corporate identity strategies, said, "If this was never part of your message to begin with, now is not the time to latch on."
He added, "In the very short term it is effective, but if everyone is using it, you're not different. You can blend in with a sea of sameness." Landor is part of the Young & Rubicam division of the WPP Group.
"Optimism for the country is more appropriate than ever, but companies that arbitrarily wrap themselves in the flag run the risk of having it backfire," said Donny Deutsch, chief executive at the Deutsch agency in New York, which works for advertisers like Tommy Hilfiger, Mitsubishi and Snapple.
"If you glom onto patriotism to pull you through, consumers will see through that," he added. "Patriotic bravado `brought to you by Joe's Leather Outlet' is not going to work." Deutsch is in the Partnership unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
"Patriotic appeals are potentially offensive because they can look like overt nationalism," said Simon Williams, chief executive at the Sterling Group, a brand consulting company in New York.
"It's important to keep the nation together," he added, "but `in-your- face' Americanism is not what we're looking for."
Those presenting patriotic ads acknowledge the criticism and say they are striving to be sensitive.
"It's a very hard line to walk," said Rick Boyko, chief creative officer for the North American operations of the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide agency in New York. "Nobody knows if you do it right or not."
The goal, he added, is to "get a message out, a sign of solidarity, and not sell."
Ogilvy has already produced patriotic ads for clients like AT&T Wireless; American Express; Cotton Inc., the association of American cotton growers; and the Miller Brewing division of the Philip Morris Companies. But rather than capitalizing on the nation's new-found patriotism, Mr. Boyko said, "We're holding up a mirror to what we are seeing."
"We were stuck in Las Vegas on Sept. 11," Mr. Boyko said, referring to a group of Ogilvy and Miller executives, "and as we drove across country in two and a half days, we started to see this spontaneous outpouring of signs, held up by people, hanging from roofs, posted in windows." That inspired the agency to create a commercial for Miller with myriad signs expressing sentiments like "America the Beautiful," "Go U.S.A." and "We Are All New Yorkers." Ogilvy is owned by WPP.
The nation's No. 1 auto maker, General Motors, is running a campaign infused with patriotic elements to promote a zero percent financing program. A TV commercial began with an announcer reciting: "The American dream. We refuse to let anyone take it away." A print ad ended with these words: "This may very well be the most serious crisis our nation has ever faced. In this time of terrible adversity, let's stand together. And keep America rolling." Indeed, "Keep America rolling" is the theme of the campaign.
"It's a fine line between calling the program what it is and going too far," said C. J. Fraleigh, executive director for advertising and corporate marketing at General Motors in Detroit. "I think we struck the right balance."
"The auto industry is a major component of the U.S. economy and we're the largest company in the industry," he added. "The size and history of G.M. gives us a legitimate license to talk about our role in the economy. It is appropriate, again, if you don't cross the line."
Mr. Adamson of Landor agreed that the patriotic appeals may work best when, he said, "it is relevant to the core brand idea."
"Major League Baseball has done a terrific job of wrapping itself in the flag," he added, referring to television commercials, "and it works, because baseball's core is American."
Even so, "over a period of time, its relevance diminishes," Mr. Adamson said, "as consumers begin to ask what does it have to do with the brand.
"And that could do damage," he added.
Mr. Boyko at Ogilvy said he did not dispute that "the shelf life for this type of message will probably be short.
"The public wants to get back to normal, but everybody's still looking for answers," he added. "We're in the process of determining what to do in Month 2, 3, 4."
STUART ELLIOTT, The New York Times. October 8, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.