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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 08:13 GMT 09:13 UK
Firms rethink ad campaigns
A flag-waver at the Miss America contest
Advertisers are tapping into a wave of US patriotism
by BBC News Online's James Arnold

It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for advertising executives.

The ad market was already in a severe slump before the US attacks; now, it has been knocked sideways.

There is a heightened state of sensitivity at the moment

Sue Gardner, Millward Brown
Companies mulling their marketing strategy face a nasty dilemma: persist with advertising, and they may look crass; stop advertising, and they fail in their duty to keep the economy ticking over.

As the first wave of post-attack advertising campaigns is rolled out, it is clear that the business - especially in the US - is in the grip of a philosophical crisis.

Will things ever get back to normal?

Sudden stop

In the immediate wake of the US strikes, most companies had the same reaction - stop advertising immediately.

A swathe of consumer-oriented firms, most notably in the airline business, put advertising activity on hold.

That was partly because many media outlets took the editorial decision to dispense with advertisements in order not to detract from the weightiness of their news coverage.

But it was also because firms were terrified of committing a marketing blunder at a time when the world was glued to its TV sets, radios and newspapers.

Close shaves

In some cases, serious gaffes were only just avoided.

Coke's "Life tastes good" campaign was an early casualty

  • Chrysler, the US arm of Germany's DaimlerChrysler, pulled a commercial that showed a vehicle manoeuvring through a disaster-struck landscape.
  • General Motors (GM) called off a spot that showed its Cadillac model dodging missile attacks.
  • Ford cancelled a print ad for its Lincoln model, featuring a romantic cityscape of New York, with twin towers intact.
  • Palmers, an Austrian lingerie company, called off a new campaign for precisely the same reason.
  • Coca-Cola halted - at least temporarily - its global "Life tastes good" campaign.
  • An ad for Persil, a Lever Faberge soap powder brand, was called off on the grounds that it featured a child who wanted to be a pilot.

Sensitive state

Not everyone managed to take action quickly enough.

Two days after the attacks, newspapers in the UK ran full-page ads for telecoms firm WorldCom, which had the toe-curling catchline: "Are you worried your hosting provider won't be around tomorrow? You should be."

Advertising provides pleasure and escapism, and people will want more of that at the moment

Graham Booth, Team Partners
Firms are desperate to avoid replicating the mistake, says Sue Gardner, managing director of Millward Brown, an advertising research firm.

"There is a heightened state of sensitivity at the moment," she says.

"Companies are acutely conscious of the need not to appear insensitive."

Changing tone

Two weeks on, advertisers are starting to creep into the open again - but with a radically different tone to their sales pitches.

A Walmart supermarket
Supermarkets have been at the forefront of the patriotism drive
The new mood is most strongly in evidence in the US, where companies have gone to great lengths to stress their patriotism and sympathy for the victims.

Supermarket giants Walmart and Kmart have played the patriotism card strongly; Kmart, for example, made much of a donation of 50,000 US flags to the city of New York.

And on September 16, it ran full-page ads featuring an American flag, with small print below, reading: "Remove from newspaper. Place in window. Embrace freedom."

Retail rival Giant Food Stores was even quicker, launching an "American Heroes Fund" on the day after the attacks.

Car makers, flag wavers

In the car industry, already suffering slumping sales before the attacks, the flag-waving has reached its peak.

GM launched an interest-free finance programme on September, aimed - it claimed - at helping the US economy recover.

Chrysler's new Jeep ad campaign
Chrysler's new ads have ruffled feathers in Germany
"GM has a responsibility to help stimulate the economy by encouraging Americans to purchase vehicles," said Ron Zarrella, the firm's North American president

Chrysler launched a campaign for its Jeep range that was based on patriotic images of US soldiers beating the Nazis in World War II.

Ironically, the campaign has sparked protests in Germany, the home of Chrysler's parent company.

On the defensive

And at the very crest of the patriotic wave was defence contractor Lockheed Martin, which draped its corporate website in the Stars and Stripes, and brought out an TV advertising campaign based on a "salute to our armed forces".

In some cases, firms went too far.

Insurance broker Group Insurance Concepts was criticised in the US press for opportunistic profiteering.

The firm ran a banner on its website that, after offering sympathy to the bereaved, ended with "we will be happy to provide you with insurance and mortgage information."

The company has now amended the banner.


The Group Insurance Concepts case was a rare one, however.

A flag-draped McDonald's
At the moment, it's hard to be too patriotic
In general, overt patriotism in advertising has gone down well with the US consumer, says Jack Trout, president of marketing consultancy Trout & Partners.

"Advertisers are seizing the moment to jump on the patriotism bandwagon," he says.

"But this will fade. I think we are already at the point where patriotic advertising is no longer necessary."

Subtlety pays off

Indeed, some canny companies have already started to play down the more obvious appeals to patriotic sentiment.

Coca-Cola, arguably the most respected marketing machine in the world, chose a more subtle approach in its post-attack campaign.

Cal Ripken
A sporting legend is helping Coke hit the right note
Its new ads feature Cal Ripken, a baseball legend who recently announced his retirement.

In the commercial, Mr Ripken muses on his career, and plays with his 11-year-old daughter.

"This ad recognises a hero from the world of sports, but it is symbolic of... those men and women who have given courageously and heroically of themselves during these tragic and difficult times," said a Coca-Cola statement.

"They are capturing the emotion, without straying too far from where the brand is positioned," says Mr Trout.

Airing views

Another highly-praised post-attack campaign came from Southwest Airlines, one of the few carriers to continue advertising through the crisis.

Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher
Southwest's Herb Kelleher tells it straight
Incidentally, Southwest has been the only consistently profitable major US airline.

While most rivals simply yanked their existing campaigns, Southwest launched an ad-hoc series of commercials featuring founder and chairman Herb Kelleher, who gave a straightforward explanation of how the airline was coping with the disruption.

Hope springs eternal

Some advertising people hope that this sort of re-positioning could spark a minor advertising boom over the next few months, as firms try to instil some spark into listless consumers.

Graham Booth, managing director of London advertising consultancy Team Research, points out that another boost could come from the surge in viewing figures and readership that the attacks have produced.

That might prove optimistic: rebounding from the current crisis would still leave the industry in the slump it has been in for most of this year.

But most advertising people agree that the current period of hyper-sensitivity and super-patriotism cannot last too long.

"People want it to be business as usual," says Mr Booth.

"At its best, advertising provides pleasure and escapism, and people will want more of that at the moment."

US Director of Budweiser marketing, Dan Hoffman
"It feels good right now to be an American"
See also:

25 Sep 01 | Business
Business gurus warn of US recession
25 Sep 01 | Business
AOL cuts targets after attack
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Why consumer confidence matters
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CBI criticises recession talk
23 Sep 01 | Business
'Too soon' to rule out UK recession
21 Sep 01 | Business
US slump could be 'steep but short'
21 Sep 01 | Business
Terrorist toll on the UK economy
19 Sep 01 | Business
Fears grow for US economy
21 Jun 01 | Business
Advertisers seek optimism in Cannes
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