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Monday
Sep122011

353. Commercial Patriotism? Patriotic Commercials?

Disclaimer: Writing articles like this is tough. There are a lot of different opinions out there, and lots of feelings, but thinking about these things is an important exercise, so here goes.

So, we all know that the ten year anniversary of 9-11 occurred yesterday. The date came incidentally on opening weekend of NFL football. So you have a very sad reminder of an atrocity meeting up with a day that most Americans look forward to, in a year we thought it might not happen. Clearly the former's importance is on a scale that the sport can't even begin to match in the smallest of degree. However, sport does intersect life - just as it did in the days and weeks following the twin towers falling. I remember a few baseball games that helped make everything seem normal, even if only for a few innings. Yesterday, we had another instance of sport intersecting life, and adding to the complexity of it all, was a layer of capitalism.

But first, a little background info on me so that none of you out there will quickly browse this article and declare me a heartless bastard, or worse, unpatriotic, or even worse, an insensitive jerk. On 9-11, I was driving down to Richmond, Virginia from the suburbs of DC to make an early morning meeting about a freelance project. The project was for a literacy center that I had worked at during my undergrad and graduate days at VCU, and even though the money wasn't very good, I liked the people and what they were trying to do in the world. I was driving down I-95 in my old pickup listening to some very bad DJs on some very bad radio stations, trying to find a decent tune. (This was before satellite radio or ipod aux jacks fit into my income bracket). When it happened, these poor DJ's were just not qualified to explain what was going on. In my head, given what they had said, a plane the size of a small Cesna had crashed into one of the towers accidentally. Didn't seem like much of a big deal squashed between two really bad country songs in the middle of Virginia on that rather pretty September morning.

When I got to campus, I parked my truck and walked up the four sets of stairs to the literacy center. I was totally not prepared for what I was going to see on the small TV set the employees had pulled into the middle of the lending library. It wasn't long before the towers began to fall. Of course, nobody knew what to say, or what to feel, or what to do. I actually got briefed on the project and started to drive back up to Northern Virginia. It was all a blur, but I do remember I-95 was empty. Which, if you are an east-coaster, you know how crazy that sounds. I might have passed ten cars on the hour and a half drive back north. The radio air was obviously filled with new words too: attack, terrorism, disaster, loss of life, and worse. I, like everyone else, watched the next few days and weeks in shock.

Oddly enough, I had had an interview in NYC that week that was obviously postponed, but I did end up going a few weeks later. What I will never forget were the holes in the skyline where I had been so used to seeing those buildings and the inches thick dust on cars coming out of the city. It looked like dirty snow. And the vigils set up all over town, but particularly the one at Union Square. And the Wanted-Dead-or-Alive posters for Osama. Those are hard things to get out of your mind. And I didn't lose anyone that I knew personally. I can't imagine what that must have been like, watching it all on CNN. Words like tragedy are overused, but not in this case.

So fast-forward ten years to NFL opening weekend yesterday. I have a cold, so instead of helping out on a last-minute project at EC1, I'm couch-surfing and watching football in a semi-Sudafed stupor. I know that I'll be seeing some 9-11 programming, afterall, you can't just ignore it, right? And most of the stuff the sports networks were doing was rather dignified and respectful for the most part. Robert De Niro reprising his role from the 9-11 documentary and talking about the events ten years ago didn't feel inappropriate, just to mention one. What I wasn't prepared for were the ads, even though I should have been. And as I'm want to do, I'm writing about this as much to figure out why I reacted the way I did, as much as I am writing for you the reader. First, let's take a look at three examples.

Budweiser:

In this spot, the brewery remakes an ad that previously had aired only once, soon after the terrorist attacks. It's beautiful, well-shot, super clear, uses honest copy and seems genuine enough given the history of the spot and the company itself. I'm pretty sure Budweiser donates a ton of money and tries to do their part, so all-in-all, in terms of remembering a tragic event goes, this is about as good as advertising can get. I'm not saying I like it, more on that later, but they did their best, I suppose.

Verizon:

Now, if this is what passes for an empathetic spot these days - no thank you. I was messaging a friend earlier today and said this, "I'm not sure if this offends me more as an American or as a creative." And I'm sticking by that. Now, I understand how difficult this must be, creating a spot that isn't supposed to sell anything, but acknowledging a tragedy. And I also understand the scrutiny a spot like this would go through, especially at a decent shop, like McGarry Bowen. (Wonder if the client simply asked them to run this old ad?) But that's all the more reason I don't like it. I feel like this ad is talking to me like I'm stupid. And although I'm personally okay with the religious undertones, I'm not okay with kinda-using them but not too much so that you can appeal to the conservative christian and the non-religious at the same time. The end result, feels like they're singing to Verizon, the Great Diety of Telecom to deliver them. I've heard that this ad also aired on the one-year anniversary and I think I would have reacted the same way then, too. Perhaps they should have done something different, since the temperature of the nation has changed quite a bit since then.

Talking with the same friend, he summed his response to the Verizon ad even better than I: "My personal problem with the Verizon ad for instance, is that it didn't say anything and was just treacle and saccharine. Kids staring up at the statue of liberty for 60 seconds doesn't do anything, doesn't present any idea, and most certainly doesn't mean anything about how we should remember and honor the past. It's just melodramatic fluff. Then seeing who it's from makes me think that that advertiser thinks I'm just an idiot who can be easily manipulated with trite imagery and sappy emotion."  Well said, better writer than I.

State-Farm:

Ah, more children singing, but at least this one feels like they're trying. Combine the innocence of children, a nice rendition of a modern song—one that ties into the vibe of New York City no less—and a visual nod to the first-responders and you have a decent spot. Another thing to like: the spots shows off the revived downtown of the city, a kind of subtle middle-finger to the event, which is a nice touch. Under normal circumstances this would be a great piece of communication. Of course, these are not normal circumstances. I wonder how many people in southern Manhattan had an easy time working with their insurance adjusters in the weeks after the event. Heck, maybe State Farm did a suberb job, but that doesn't mean that when most people think insurance and 9-11, they may have a different reaction to this spot. Maybe it's just the logo at the end. In the end, I would have rather just run/watched a more traditional State Farm ad on Monday Night Football.

As an added bit of exploration, take a look at how some advertisers handled advertising in the New York Times on Sunday, tip to Breaking Copy on these. Same issue here, I'm afraid.

 

It just comes off all wrong to me. Now, I understand how difficult this is. You're kinda damned if you do and damned if you don't for the most part. There will always be critics and there will always be toes to step on. I just feel like most of the work comes off as pedantic, condescending and insensitive to what happened. I don't know if it's just the logo slapped on this at the end that feels off - maybe at the beginning would be a simple fix?!? Maybe, that would keep it all from a whimper of an end. Maybe. I'm okay with a company having a perspective on the events and using their media clout to say something about it, and I am totally fine with people out there who think that this work is okay, even if it touches a chord with them. I'm simply trying to articulate my reactions to the work—which was not good—and think about how it could have been handled differently, and in my opinion, better.

Some of the most creative people I know work in this industry. Some of the most caring too. (And to be clear, I'm not one of those people against running a profitable business, since I like to have a job and pay for things.) I think we can do better with all this creative and business power and really show off our communication skills while doing just that - communicating a feeling to the country and world, albeit through a particular company's lens. If it were easy, anybody could do it.

So what is an advertiser to do? Okay, so it's easy enough to complain about something like this. But how about some answers? Here's how I would have approached an assignment that included advertising on the anniversary of 9-11, or referencing any tragedy for that matter, if I were in a position of power at any of these agencies or companies.

1. Don't. This may not be the most practical answer, and it certainly isn't the most business-savy either. No need in hurting the publications / stations even if for a day, right? But this would definitely have been a better choice for our friends at Verizon and Tourneau. If you're not going to put the time and energy into the project that will result in something honest and respectful, then you'd be better off being invisible. I've got to believe that if some individuals are reacting this way (I'm sure I'm not alone, right?), then there must be some companies that feel some awkwardness in pushing their products in a visible way on such a rememberance. Maybe pausing the ol' capitalism machine for a day isn't the worst idea out there.

2. Focus elsewhere. Personally, I didn't tune into any NFL games as the sole manner by which to remember the events of a decade a go. I tuned in to watch football. That doesn't mean that I didn't take time to reflect on the impact of that event, I just did it on my own time. Perhaps the advertisers that focused instead on the return of football were the more intellgent ones. You can have fun with that and it might respect the audience a bit more and feel more relevant for your brand. In other words, I'm okay with a company selling me soda and connecting with me through the launch of a new season. I'm not okay with a big advertiser telling me how to feel (or even how they feel, which indirectly tells me how I should be feeling) about an event like this, then putting their logo on that end to remind me that yes, you can still get that smartphone that you like. Just doesn't work. Granted, all advertisers were smart enough not to put a price  or item on their spots - but the underlying principle peeked through a bit too much for my comfort.

3. Advertising as Normal? Why not forget all the trappings of a normal advertising spot and actually talk to people like you respect them. The networks tried to do this during their pre-game shows. Not all to good effect, but none to really terrible effect. They showed people talking about how the event changed their lives. Why not have the CEO of a company say something like this, "You know, ten years ago the world changed for all of us. Today while we celebrate the kickoff of a new NFL season we are reminded of (using anything but these words, the tragic events of September 11th) and how the world just stopped. Today, we air this ad not to sell anything, push a product, or any of the usual marketing efforts. Today we just pause and thank all of those who helped us heal and continue to do so."  No logo or slogan or trite over-used message. Just a bit of honesty. I'm sure this could be done better than what I just wrote off the top-of-my-head.

4. Donate your ad time/ production. If you really care about remembering the event, why not donate your ad time and commercial production to an organization that is doing something about it. (This doesn't mean just tacking it on at the end, btw.) Maybe the 9-11 Memorial Fund. Perhaps any of the survivor groups. Just do something good and get out of the way. When you tell someone to (that we?) never forget - within the context of an advertisement, you have to be ready for people to respond negatively. You're telling them one thing, but not actually doing it. You want people to remember, tell them something that someone did that day that is worth remembering instead of following up those words with your logo. At least Budweiser tried to do this, and for that I respect the effort.

Again, there is no right answer to this, but I do think there are plenty of wrong ones, some on display in full HD glory yesterday. I also believe any of these four alternative methods would at least respect the audience and honor the victims in NY, DC and PA in a way that the ads that ran during the NFL games could not.

What are your thoughts on this extremely sensitive matter? Agree? Disagree?

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Reader Comments (1)

No one can tell the public safety world anything that would make it right. I agree with you and advertisers, "DON'T BOTHER". There is nothing anyone could advertise that will make the pain go away. I have a personal friend who was the director of the Erie PA chapter of the American Red Cross. She lived is some harsh conditions while her chapter was deployed in New York. Now she has a medical condition directly related to the attacks and this government is doing nothing for her or anyone else with the same afflictions. Let's start a fund for the public safety workers who survived so most can pay the medical bills.
October 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Smith

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