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Spoons to Snuff: The Soldier as Pitchman

The advertising executive David Ogilvy once complained about creatively challenged colleagues who followed the rule that "if you have nothing to say, sing it." A corollary might be, wrap it in red, white and blue.

Through the decades, patriotism has been, if not the last refuge of Madison Avenue, then a favorite hiding place. That should not be surprising in a country where many citizens wear the flag on their sleeves and where pitchmen strive to convince the public that advertising equals free enterprise equals the American way of life.

As a result, unfurling the colors is typically a safe way to appeal to consumers, a tactic falling under the rubric of borrowed interest - that is, hitching your pitch wagon to one of the most beloved, best-known advertising characters, Uncle Sam.

So, if you market prosaic paper products, do as Procter & Gamble does: sell Bounty Quilted Napkins in "America's favorite colors."

"Red, white and blue. And stronger," an ad proclaims. "Just like America."

In times of war and crisis, the public seems to give permission to marketers to vigorously wave the Stars and Stripes, suppressing the peacetime urge to deem such efforts as exploitive or tacky.

For instance, the image of Coca-Cola as a beloved American icon can be traced to its campaigns in World War II presenting its pixie-like mascot as a cheerleader for the Allies. Marketers still speak of a 1942 ad for the New Haven Railroad called "The Kid in Upper 4," a paean to soldiers that made civilians feel guilty for griping about slow train service. James Twitchell, a University of Florida professor who studies consumer culture, includes it in his book "Twenty Ads That Shook the World."

During the World War II frenzy of jingoistic commercialism, Rice Krispies cereal was peddled as "Right on the beam for wartime eating!" as the Snap, Crackle and Pop characters piloted military aircraft.

Oneida sold its Community Silverplate tableware with a tender ad showing a woman hugging a soldier under the headline "Back home for keeps." Shoppers wondering where their Florida grapefruit juice had gone were told it could be "aboard Pearl Harbor's swift avengers! Those nervy little PT boats daring to toss torpedoes at Tojo's towering battleships, 500 times their size!"

After Sept. 11, 2001, who could forget the Anheuser-Busch spot in the Super Bowl with a team of Clydesdales in Lower Manhattan, bowing their heads at ground zero? There was the "Keep America Rolling" campaign from General Motors, and a portrait of the Statue of Liberty, from General Electric, marching off her pedestal with her sleeves rolled up.

For all the license granted in those circumstances, however, advertisers can still get carried away. The best example is a bombastic series of 1940's ads declaring "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" The reference was to the cigarette's green packaging, which turned white after Pearl Harbor ("the smart new uniform for fine tobacco"), ostensibly because the military needed the copper-based green dyes for the war effort. The ad provoked loud and sustained derision, but sales climbed and Lucky Strike Green never returned.

Perhaps chastened by the periodic backlashes, and wary of consumer attitudes toward traditional or schmaltzy sales spiels, advertisers have been relatively circumspect regarding Iraq. Almost all the messages have been about supporting the troops, rather than about hauling out the patriotic trappings.

The star-spangled sell is "a little too solicitous," said Tom Orbe, vice president for marketing at the Kawasaki consumer products division in Irvine, Calif. "We didn't want to overreach." Ads for the company's motorcycles and other recreational vehicles offer $250 rebates to members of the armed forces.

At least one other marketer seeking to show its support is running into unforeseen consequences. The U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company donated its Skoal and Copenhagen snuff to troops in Iraq, collected the soldiers' thank-you letters, then reprinted those letters in ads publicizing the gifts, which carried the tagline, "No . . . We thank you."

Now, some legislators are complaining that the company violated military policy against distributing free samples of tobacco products, calling the giveaway reprehensible.

Lucky Strike Green may have gone to war, but apparently Skoal and Copenhagen cannot.

Posted on aef.com: July 9, 2003


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. July 6, 2003

Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.