During the summer, a print advertisement for Super- smile tooth-whitening products presented a funeral where the sun shone brightly off the teeth of a young, good-looking pallbearer.
"We make it hard not to smile," the headline declared.
But after Sept. 11, said Joel Tractenberg, partner and copywriter at Tractenberg Advertising in New York, which created the ad, "people went from thinking we were comic geniuses to sociopaths really quickly."
In recent years, advertising has depicted death, somberly or with a smile, as a device to gain attention for messages. The terrorist attacks, however, led some marketers to withdraw or change commercials or ads with death references.
"Death in advertising right now just does not have a place," said Donny Deutsch, chairman and chief executive of Deutsch in New York, part of the Partnership unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
"We live in a very different world post-Sept. 11th," he added, "and any advertising agency or marketer who hasn't already figured that out yet, I'd be surprised at."
The trend to use death as a creative device came only after decades of reticence to address such a serious subject. One reason for the change was the realization that as American consumers grew increasingly diverse and fragmented, death was one of the few universal subjects for mass marketers.
That was seen in the use of the Grim Reaper in ads for advertisers as disparate as Combat insecticide, Jeep and Nissan vehicles and TiVo personal video recorders.
One of the first efforts to broach death in advertising came in a 1969 television commercial for the Volkswagen Beetle, created by Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York, a predecessor to the DDB Worldwide unit of the Omnicom Group. The spot showed a funeral procession as, "Sunset Boulevard" style, the dead man served as a narrator, reading his will. He left little or nothing to his spendthrift co-workers and relatives, who were shown driving large, ostentatious cars. But to his frugal nephew Harold, seen crying as he followed the hearse in his Beetle, the deceased left "my entire fortune."
More recently, death became fodder for work for Reebok International, showing a bungee jump gone bad, and Wide Leg Jeans by Levi Strauss, with a patient's electrocardiogram. turning into a dance tune, as well as for brands like American Express, Benetton, Discover, FedEx, Nike, Outpost.com and Toshiba.
But after Sept. 11, "people are more aware of their own mortality, and they don't need to be reminded of that," said Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in New York, part of the Kirshenbaum Bond Creative Network.
Even advertisers - and agencies - known for slapstick humor or powerful surprises are likely to avoid images of death.
"Certainly people are overwhelmed and have too much to handle right now," said Paul Kettl, a psychiatrist who has done research on the impact of media coverage of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
After several months pass, said Dr. Kettl, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, advertising may again touch on death, through themes of remembrance or sentimentality. The college of medicine is part of the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa.
Not everyone is inclined to wait, particularly when the ads can make a case for bringing up death and dying.
"We have an issue, and our issue hasn't really changed," said Alex Bogusky, partner, chairman and creative director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Miami, which works on campaigns in Florida and across the country intended to discourage youngsters and teenagers from smoking.
"We're going to try and stay on target and remain committed to our cause," he added, reducing the figure of 400,000 in the United States who "lose their lives to tobacco every year." Crispin Porter is 49 percent owned by the Maxxcom unit of the MDC Corporation.
Similarly, John Hancock Financial Services in Boston introduced during the World Series television commercials that explicitly discuss death. In one spot from the campaign, created by Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos in Boston, a woman is shown having to raise her children after her husband has died. In another spot, as text appears on screen reading, "The average age a woman becomes a widow is 56," a husband and wife bicker about managing money for the future.
"It is a respectful and honest treatment of a very serious issue, which is noninsurance or under-insurance," said Mike Sheehan, chief creative officer at Hill, Holliday, part of the McCann-Erickson World Group unit of Interpublic. "It certainly met the test before Sept. 11, and it met it after Sept. 11."
As for Supersmile, part of Robell Research, its agency, Tractenberg, created a replacement campaign that is also humorous.
There is a new theme, "Before Supersmile, keeping your teeth white wasn't easy," which is depicted through more benign scenarios, centered on comically exaggerated lengths to which people might go to avoid staining their teeth.
"Humor is one of the weapons we can perhaps utilize at this time, and we shouldn't lose it in a paroxysm of self-censorship," said Jeff Goodby, co-chairman at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, part of Omnicom. His agency created a hilarious "Got milk?" commercial in which a man dies and goes to heaven, or so it seems: he cannot find any milk for his cookies and learns he has actually been sent to, well, the other place.
"It's always funny to see people fall down, and it's always funny to see people with the accelerator stuck on the downhill," Mr. Goodby said, "and we need that as much now as ever."
Allison Fass, The New York Times. November 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.