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Advertisers waving the flag to boost sales


The television ad that brings General Motors' interest-free financing to the masses opens with a video of a desert highway that rings of freedom itself, accompanied by the voice of actor Peter Coyote, who delivers a bold message that springs from an American tragedy:

"The American dream. We refuse to let anyone take it away. So, GM announces interest-free financing. On every new car. And every new truck. Now through Oct. 31. Believe in the dream. Believe in each other. Keep America rolling."

Is this crass merchandising in the wake of the atrocities of Sept. 11 or a helpful contribution to the nation's economic recovery? Either way, such messages, imbued with patriotism, are ubiquitous in the United States today.

Advertising and marketing campaigns are rippling with red, white and blue, and consumption is equated with patriotism stirred by horrific events. How long this ride can last is anyone's guess. It could end quietly, just as any theme runs its course, or it could end with a nasty backlash, experts said.

"Is it my patriotic duty to buy a Pontiac? The answer is 'no,' " said Bob Garfield, an advertising critic and editor at large at Advertising Age in New York. "Is it right for GM to position its annual consumer rebate as an act of corporate self-sacrifice? No. Are they exploiting the deaths of 5,000 people and the grief of an entire nation? Yes."

GM does not buckle under such criticism. "Anyone who suggests this program is aimed at capitalizing on the tragedy of Sept. 11 is making a false and misleading statement and we find it offensive to all the men and women of GM," said Peg Holmes, a GM spokeswoman in Detroit.

GM is not alone in developing themes laced with Americana. The messages range from a pitch for an enticing trip to Hawaii, if only to prove the right to travel is unencumbered, to buying goods with a credit card so that a relief fund will be the beneficiary. Cable television advertising overflows with pitches for flags and symbols of America.

Clearly, there's demand to be met. Yesterday, Federated Department Stores, which operates Macy's and Bloomingdale's, said its buyers are adding new items and increasing orders, by as much as 50 percent, for patriotic- themed merchandise for its "Spirit of America" holiday collection. This includes a $30 Waterford Stars & Stripes tree ornament and a $99 crystal American flag paperweight.

There's a major ad campaign for the New York Stock Exchange to the tune of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," another for Anheuser-Busch, announcing a $3 million contribution to relief agencies, and another for Las Vegas, a city suffering from a major decline in tourism.

Advertisers always walk a fine line -- or should -- and are sensitive to the tone of their clients' message. Bob Gardner of the San Francisco advertising agency Gardner, Geary, Coll & Young has spoken with his clients about the pitfalls of centering an ad campaign around the flag. "If people perceive you as using the flag to sell soap, you are setting yourself up for enormous cynicism and it will backfire," he said.

The GM campaign, by McCann-Erickson Detroit, in Gardner's view, is simply "thinly disguised hucksterism" and "on the edge of exploiting tragedy," albeit not blatantly offensive. Still, that's dangerous territory, said Gardner.

The view from Detroit is quite different. The interest-free financing, now extended to Nov. 18, was GM's reaction to President Bush's petition to corporate America to help stimulate the economy in the wake of Sept. 11, said Holmes, the GM spokeswoman. Indeed, it's been successful, she said, without revealing numbers.

"Car sales had stopped" prior to the terrorist attacks, with the economy anemic, said Holmes, "but we had a very strong September and we expect to have a very strong October." Focus groups and what Holmes called "statistically valid consumer research" show "an overwhelming majority" of Americans approve of GM's strategy, Holmes said.

New United Airlines advertising, by the Fallon ad agency in Minneapolis, is elegant documentary work in which UAL employees are introduced as proud partners who have experienced, along with the rest of the nation, terrorism of epic proportions but who will not be kept down. Critics give UAL a pass, because the airline and its employees were direct victims on Sept. 11 and, Garfield said, their very business depends on getting people back into airplanes.

It's impossible to know just how long advertising colored by patriotism will be tolerated, said Russell Winer, a professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He said there's always a "wear-out factor" for advertising campaigns.

"Any campaign is subject to certain limitations -- how long you can endure over a period of time," said Winer. "In this case, our involvement (in the war on terrorism) is for a very long term. I'm not the only one saying that. The president is saying that. I'd say this is a good time for companies to go back to basics -- do a good job on customer service, building brand names. Do it low key and not heavily on the backs of 5,000 people."

 

George Raine, The San Francisco Chronicle. October 24, 2001

Copyright © 2001 San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.