On Sept. 11, the main Web page for Yahoo! Inc. went black and white. Rather than its usual colourful cartoonishness, there were somber greys, a simple plaque in the middle of the page declaring "We remember," and links to another Yahoo! site with various tribute pages.
For a company whose name and image tries hard for an off-kilter irreverence, the change was dramatic. As one of the many companies that had to make decisions about its marketing during the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Yahoo! pulled all outside advertising from its main Web sites for the day. Its main Canadian site, although not totally black and white, followed suit with an uncharacteristic grey and anniversary coverage dominating the page.
"There has been a collective sense here at Yahoo! that, as a company, we should recognize the anniversary with dignity and regard for the many ways in which our user might have experienced and will remember these events," spokeswoman Helena Maus said.
A prevailing sense among many advertisers was that it was better to respect the solemnity of the day by being deliberately absent. But a number of other companies ran unadorned memorial ads, such as Tiffany & Co.'s condolence note saying simply "Together we remember," which appeared in some U.S. and Canadian papers.
The question, which will come up again in a year's time, is whether memorial ads are tasteful remembrances -- or have the less tasteful effect of still putting corporate names in front of consumers.
"I think it is well-intentioned, but I think it is self-serving," said John Lee, president of ad agency Holmes and Lee in Toronto. "While every single person understands the emotion involved, it still feels manipulative to make that kind of a statement and somehow sign it off as if to somehow say what a caring corporate citizen you are.
"I don't think they are deliberately trying to be that manipulative," he added. "But, you know, it really comes off that way. It really does."
Not everyone agrees. "I think it's from the heart," said Geoffrey Roche, founder and creative director of Toronto ad agency Roche Macaulay & Partners. "If a company wants to do it because it believes very strongly as a company that it wants to recognize the day . . . I think that's not a misguided thought."
Still, some feel uncomfortable with advertisers showing up at all. "I don't know whether it is the business of advertisers to massage our emotions at a time like this," said Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of Adbusters in Vancouver.
In Canada, daily advertising on Sept. 11 was muted, but not as unusually quiet as in the United States, where many companies pulled national ads altogether or ran commemorative statements.
A theme in many of the ads, particularly those in major newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, was honoring employees lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Bank of America ran an open letter from the company's chief executive officer commemorating lost colleagues. Others hinted at a national spirit, with discount retail chain Target Corp. running a photo of one hand holding another, while a Kmart Corp. ad showed the lower Manhattan skyline.
There were also fewer venues for national ad campaigns. AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Web sites, including AOL and CNN.com, cancelled most advertising, replacing banners ads with the image of a burning candle. The one-day respite is thought to have cost the media conglomerate millions of dollars in lost income at a time when it is desperately trying to attract advertisers.
In Canada, the CBC ran print ads for its memorial coverage, but kept its own airwaves free of advertising because it considers it part of its job as a public broadcaster to pull all ads on days such as Sept. 11, according to network spokeswoman Ruth-Ellen Soles. Meanwhile, CTV had two large blocks of ad-less airtime during its memorial coverage.
"Out of respect for the anniversary, some of our advertisers don't want to be part of the broadcast day. We are accommodating their requests absolutely," said Rita Fabian, CTV senior vice-president of sales and marketing, in a written statement.
Many companies decided to go silent rather than to confuse their image or run the risk of appearing to cash in on the sadness.
"Given the light-hearted and upbeat tonality of the advertising for all of our brands, we felt it would be inappropriate to advertise on such a solemn occasion," said Ben Deutsch, a spokesman for Coca-Cola Co.
With Sept. 11 memorials in the years to come, and the possibility of other events that might raise emotions to similar heights, there will be other times that advertisers have to face the question of what their role or responsibility is.
"It's such a once-in-a-lifetime event that it's very, very difficult [to decide to run ads]," Mr. Roche said. "I think you do have to play it by ear."
In a recent editorial, Adweek editor Alison Fahey said that, for all the talk that cynicism and irony would die away from mass culture after the shock of last Sept. 11, tasteless advertising has nevertheless returned with a force. And that has been part of the return to normal.
But rather than a time for quiet remembrance, she wonders how soon Sept. 11 could become an excuse for advertisers to use the day as an extension of back-to-school promotions. Can Sept. 11 sales be around the corner? "Don't laugh," she writes. "You've heard of Memorial Day sales, right?"
But the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 -- experienced by most, like Sept. 11, through television -- has never become an excuse for marketers.
It's hard to imagine ad executives commuting daily to their Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue agencies ever seeing the gaping hole in the lower Manhattan skyline as something to exploit in national ads.
Guy Dixon, . Globetechnology.com. September 13, 2002
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