Comfort with a corporate spin

Tragedy: As companies get back to the business of selling products, their ad strategies have been mindful of the Sept. 11 attacks.

October 14, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

EVER SINCE the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a friend has been talking a lot about taking a trip to Las Vegas.

He explains this in two ways: One, he wants a holiday in a place he likes, where room rates are low. Two, Vegas represents the victory of desire over circumstance: He finds hope in the idea of visiting a desert paradise, and maybe winning a million dollars.

If everyone felt this way, corporate America wouldn't have to worry about losing money in this scary time. But the reality is that not everyone is feeling hopeful, and not everyone wants to spend. So Ford and General Motors are offering interest-free financing on new cars in an effort to keep America rolling. "The American dream. We refuse to let anyone take it away," GM says.

I haven't seen any ads lately inviting people to Vegas, but I've seen ones for Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Mexico. The hearts of Sandals resorts in the Caribbean are going out to America, and so are the hearts of Holiday Inn, Radisson Hotels and Donald J. Trump.

More than any of the American flags - which in themselves have become advertisements for everything from grief to retribution - corporate advertising is oddly comforting. It means America is still occupied with doing what it does best: selling.

Keith Reinhard, the CEO of DDB Needham Worldwide, one of the world's biggest advertising agencies, proudly said so in a message published on his company's Web site two weeks after the attacks: "The single most important challenge facing us is to do an even better job of what we're supposed to be good at - getting people to buy things. ... Failing to do what we get paid to do weakens America and plays into the hands of terrorists."

Although he doesn't advocate capitalizing on national grief, Reinhard notes that it's "relevant" for a phone company to begin an ad about restoring phone service with the words, "Let Freedom Ring," for example, because this celebrates the "basic human values of love, brotherhood and mutual affection."

No question, these are weird times for businesses. They have to survive but they can't be seen as cashing in on mass tragedy. So many marketers have calculated that the most tasteful thing to do is sell themselves behind a patriotic scrim. Companies are assuring Americans they're grieving beside us, while gently prodding us to buy. "We know you need time to heal," Jet Blue whispers from an ad featuring that requisite sea of solemn white space. "We all do. Just know that when you're ready, we'll be here."

In some cases, buying equals patriotism: join New York Sports Clubs for a discount to "Keep America Strong." Others have gone for the tricky non-ad: in light of the national tragedy, the Calvert Woodley liquor store in Washington, D.C., "will not be advertising our sale this week." Intercontinental Hotels and Resorts is trying a no-nonsense route: "Without you, thousands of New York businesses face closure and tens of thousands of their employees face layoffs."

The evolution of ads in The New York Times shows how companies are gradually finding their way. Exxon was the first to place an "our-thoughts-and-prayers" ad in the front section of The Times, on Sept. 13. It featured spare text, the white space, and in tiny print at the bottom: "Please visit our Web site at"

On the 20th, Exxon placed another ad, this time pledging money to various causes. On the 27th, a third Exxon ad took a boldly instructive tack, urging Americans not to pick on Arabs.(With messages that read like jittery insurance policies against unfair retaliation, Arabs and Muslims, too, have advertised. First Kuwait pledged solidarity, then the Saudi Arabian embassy did, followed by the Egyptian-American community, Lebanon, Turkish organizations, Pakistani-Americans, Iranian-Americans and the Embassy of Qatar.)

As the weeks wore on, tragedy ads multiplied, as if companies suddenly realized consumers might be keeping score. Saks Fifth Avenue began running a "With Sadness" ad in The Times on Sept. 13, and was quickly joined on the same page by Tiffany and Co., Bulgari, Chanel, Fendi, Ann Taylor and so on.

Already, newspaper ads drawing on the week-old bombing campaign have begun. A Boeing ad selling a fighter plane states: "On the frontline of freedom you have to be the best. But without the best equipment, the risks are high." And it's not just big business. Ads placed by the United Auto Workers opposing fast-track authority on trade evoke the virtue of war-time unity: "It's a bad time to threaten American job security."

My father, a retired copywriter who wrote the "Think Small" ad for Volkswagen and "Timex takes a licking and keeps on ticking," says it wasn't always this way. When President Kennedy was shot, he remembers recommending that National Airlines pull its ads for a time out of respect, which it did.

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