Fundamental shifts in ads seen

Selling: Many companies altered their marketing after the terrorist attacks, and some predict no end to the changes.

October 06, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Americans have not heard the slogan "Life Tastes Good," part of this year's high-concept advertising campaign from Coca-Cola, since Sept. 10. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, Coke pulled all its television commercials in the United States. When it went back on the air nearly two weeks later, it did so with a single new ad.

The national spot features Baltimore baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. bathed in the heroic glow of stadium lights, bidding adieu to baseball. Coke's ad team scrambled to remove the exuberant "Life Tastes Good" slogan at the end, and instead used a simple company logo.

Since the attacks, executives at Coke have debated when, and if, anyone will want to hear the company talk about how good life tastes.

"In the wake of horrible barbarism, that's not a message that resonates," Coca-Cola spokesman Rob Baskin said. "Moments of national emergency are always times when marketers step back and determine whether or not what they're doing offends sensibilities."

Just after the attacks in New York and Washington, television stations and newspapers filled with messages of sympathy from corporate America, gratitude to relief workers and information about company donations.

More recently, companies have richocheted between getting back to normal in their advertising, using ads that offer a subliminal sense of comfort and marketing with unabashed patriotism.

Now, with Americans back to work and the holiday season approaching, advertisers are struggling to settle on which of those is the right theme - trying to sell again without seeming insensitive.

"I hate to say this, but the terrorists were shrewd to hit America at a time when so much of our economy is dependent on getting people in stores for the holidays," said Peter Levine, president of the consulting division for the New York branding agency Desgrippes Gobe Group. "Retailers and advertisers worked really hard a year in advance on their campaigns for this time of year, and now there's a mad scramble to tweak the message."

For many companies, the first requirement has been to mute any reference to the attacks. New York-based airline JetBlue pulled a TV spot showing one of its planes flying past the World Trade Center. Microsoft has indefinitely delayed the release of its new "Flight Simulator" computer game and created software to erase the twin towers from its current version. Mattel recalled its Max Steel MX99 Heli-Jet, which defends New York from a madman atop the towers.

Companies are reading their pre-existing ads like tea leaves. Do they still fit the national mood? Clinique pulled the exclamation "POW!" from ads for its "High Impact" eye shadow. Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline ditched plans to air new spots for its anti-depressant Paxil, fearful it would be seen as preying on the vulnerable during a time of anxiety. Nissan stopped selling Maximas with a TV spot showing a sinister horseman chasing a car through the desert.

Many advertisers said Americans want a sense of life as usual. StrategyOne, a subsidiary of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, conducted a poll of 1,000 American adults shortly after the attacks that showed that consumers overwhelmingly wanted companies to return to the marketing and advertising they saw Sept. 10. Eight in 10 people surveyed said they thought the return of regular programming and commercials was a relief.

To tap that sentiment, many advertisers are sending the same message - just attaching lower prices to the pitch.

"Stores are getting ready to go to war over price," said Howard L. Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a retail consulting firm. "What our clients are planning is, `We've got these jeans at $14.99, and that's the best deal in town.' "

Companies, particularly those seen as part of the American fabric, are not likely to stop wrapping those discounts in red, white and blue, industry analysts say. Ford ran newspaper ads this week for long-term free financing of new cars and trucks by praising the spirit of America and exclaiming, "We at Ford want to salute that spirit to help America move forward."

Wal-Mart will keep flags in its stores for the forseeable future, said spokesman Tom Williams, describing the in-store experience as "a mixture of Christmas and Fourth of July."

But other ads using patriotic themes have stirred criticism. Clear Choice Laser Eye Center, a laser surgery company with branches in 14 states, has run newspaper ads featuring the grime-smeared face of a firefighter and a promise to contribute money toward disaster-relief efforts. The ad includes a testimonial from an FBI agent identified only by his first name and initial.

In the ad, "Paul P" states: "On behalf of the dedicated members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I thank Clear Choice Laser Eye Center. As a result of your comprehensive plan for Law Enforcement Personnel, you have reduced the possibility of significant harm to many of us."

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