Three months after Sept. 11, Madison Avenue continues struggling to determine the right tone, approach and content for post-attack campaigns. The result has been advertising that is often strained or off-putting, even inappropriate.
Only a handful of ads have managed to strike evocative chords by walking the fine line between exploitation and empathy.
Compared with the high-minded work that agencies created during World War II, much of it demanding sacrifice from citizens, today's advertising relies far more on reassurances that victory is achievable through sybaritism. The mantra of the booming economy of the 1990's, "Shop till you drop," has been replaced with a millennium mutation: "Shop till Osama drops."
Consumers, moreover, could be excused for thinking they are shopping in a parallel universe, or perhaps more accurately, a series of parallel universes.
In one universe, patriotism is paramount as marketers paint their brands red, white and blue and proclaim, "My country, right or wrong" - usually wrongly.
Who will ever forget, try as they may, when the Miller Brewing division of Philip Morris ran a commercial in which people held up signs with messages like "We are all New Yorkers" and "I will not be terrorized!" or the day Kmart ran an American flag as an ad, which urged readers to "embrace freedom" by tearing out and displaying it ("This side up").
In this universe, the product being peddled in a jingoistic spot or star-spangled banner ad can be patriotism itself, in the form of tasteless American flag Post-it Notes from 3M; tacky "Promise of Freedom" eagle figurines from Franklin Mint, a unit of Roll International; or tawdry "patriotic thong panties" from Frederick's of Hollywood, festooned with flags and the words "America the Beautiful."
In another universe, the mood is somber, and no commerce can be transacted without a nod, respectful or unctuous, to the victims of the attacks and their families. "We will never forget," promises a bizarre newspaper ad for General Electric by the New York office of BBDO Worldwide, owned by the Omnicom Group. The ad shows a defiant Statue of Liberty striding off her pedestal and rolling up her sleeves, as if brought to life by poltergeist in the finale of a movie called "Ghostbusters Go to War."
A commercial by the same agency for Visa made a similar point more subtly. Meant to encourage people to resume buying theater tickets, the spot presents an elegiac version of "Give My Regards to Broadway" sung by Judy Collins as scenes appear of actors getting ready for a performance.
In still another universe, doing well by doing good is the operative scheme, centered on pledges to contribute to Sept. 11-related charities and causes. For instance, a print ad for the Discover credit card lists merchandise from coffee beans to garden hose to movie tickets and asserts, "Just by doing what you do every day, you can help the families and victims of Sept. 11."
The ad, by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, also owned by Omnicom, goes on to explain that "every time you use your Discover Card" - either the regular version or the "Discover American Flag Card" - the company will donate to "America's relief efforts, until we reach our goal of $5 million." Welcome to Sacrifice Lite: no muss, no fuss, no messy commitment. Discover is a unit of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
In other instances, it is donor beware, as the budget for self-congratulatory ads to promote the philanthropy can be larger than the actual sum being given away.
In a final universe, the determination has been made to resume the routine as if nothing has happened; ads maintain their normal funny, cloying or annoying attitudes. In this universe, populated primarily by beers, video games, fast food and snacks, the smiles seem forced, the enthusiasm too enthusiastic, not unlike the laughter at a cocktail party to divert attention from a guest's faux pas.
The reason for those confusing multiple realities is not difficult to determine. Never before have agencies and advertisers had to figure out how to aim sales pitches at a public grappling with simultaneous situations of domestic terrorism, recession, biohazards and war.
Moreover, the intertwining of the fate of the nation with the fate of the economy has brought a blurring of the distinction between altruistic public service advertising, which Madison Avenue traditionally produces during national crises, and campaigns capitalizing on Sept. 11 for capitalistic purposes, intended to keep commercial interests afloat.
Take for instance the campaign for General Motors carrying the theme "Keep America rolling," which sought successfully to stimulate automobile sales after Sept. 11 with zero-percent loans. The first print ad spent two paragraphs recounting how "the world as we knew it came to a halt" and how the attacks "shook us to our very core."
Then the ad shrewdly took a brisk U-turn: "Now it's time to move forward. For years, the auto industry has played a crucial role in our economy. General Motors takes that responsibility seriously." The ad, by the Troy, Mich., office of McCann- Erickson Worldwide Advertising, concluded with this deft blend of selflessness and self-interest: "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."
How? Why, by spending tens of thousands of dollars on a new G.M. car, truck or minivan.
Another unsettling example of this peculiar interweaving of national and commercial interests is a spot from the New York office of McCann-Erickson, part of the McCann- Erickson World Group division of the Interpublic Group of Companies, for the Travel Industry Association of America.
The spot, tellingly titled "The President's Own Words," uses film of President Bush addressing a joint session of Congress, much as public service announcements for nonprofit causes from the American Red Cross to the Harvard Alcohol Project feature a president's appearance.
This time, though, the scenes of the president are interspersed with scenes of employees of travel-related businesses - profit-making enterprises - who repeat his words to "live your lives, do your business around the country, take your families." They include pilots, flight attendants, crews of cruise ships, hotel workers and chefs, representing travel industry giants like American Express; Hertz, a unit of Ford Motor; and Marriott International, which are contributing an estimated $20 million to run the spot.
In fact, McCann-Erickson is also the ad agency for Marriott.
President Bush is joined by a cadre of elected officials in campaigns commingling public service and commercial promotion, including Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Gov. George E. Pataki and Jean Chrétien, prime minister of Canada. Those efforts seek to rebuild the New York City brand by encouraging tourism, shopping and dining out to help local businesses.
The campaigns, by BBDO New York and the New York and Toronto offices of the Wolf Group, work more effectively than the travel commercial because they mask their intent to benefit private companies with a burst of feel-good emotionalism tapping the reservoir of good will the city has earned the last three months.
Mr. Giuliani is by far the best performer of the bunch, particularly in the delightful BBDO New York spots carrying the theme "The New York miracle. Be a part of it."
The humorous pro bono commercials present well-known residents like Robert De Niro and Barbara Walters, each pursuing an improbable "New York dream" from taking part in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade to being in a Broadway musical.
Don't be surprised if after Mr. Giuliani leaves office, he appears in a Super Bowl commercial by BBDO New York for one of the agency's paying clients like Pepsi-Cola.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. December 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.