Ad creativity feels pressure

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In a now-famous spot for Mike's Hard Lemonade that appeared four months before Sept. 11, an ironworker falls off a building and is impaled. With a long shaft of metal sticking out of his torso, the ironworker gets up and suggests that he and his foreman take a hard-lemonade break.

"You're on," says the foreman.

Mike's doesn't plan on running that ad again, according to Eric Silver, exec VP-creative director at Cliff Freeman & Partners, the agency that created the Mike's spot. "There are certain things you just don't want to go near now," said Mr. Silver.

The creative content of advertising changed following the terrorist attacks. First, advertisers came out with patriotic messages, which are generally rare on Madison Ave. Then there were a profusion of ads that featured families and working-class characters and fire, police and emergency personnel. There also was a conspicuous absence of humor right after the attacks, as if it were no longer appropriate to laugh.

interpretation

"People were concerned that messages would be misinterpreted because there was so much unthinkable tragedy," said Peter Arnell, CEO of Omnicom Group's Arnell Group.

By the time Super Bowl XXXVI rolled around, audiences needed the release and advertisers delivered with comic spots that were funny but with softened edges. One slapstick spot for Bud Light from Omnicom's DDB Worldwide, Chicago, for example, included Cedric the Entertainer accidentally dousing his girlfriend with beer. But following the Super Bowl, advertising seemed to be returning to normal, which for some was not an appealing situation.

"Seems to me we are back to tacky advertising," said Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide. "I thought that maybe at the time, when we were standing around singing those national hymns that had such pertinence and stunning relevance, `Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears,' that maybe we'd also remember that there was another line in that hymn that said `sustain thy soul with self-control.' But that unfortunately has been forgotten."

As an example, Mr. Reinhard points to the press & poster Grand Prix winner at the Cannes International Advertising Festival, the sexually explicit print work for the U.K.'s Club 18-30 Holidays. "We certainly didn't elevate the game," he said.

Rick Boyko, co-president and chief creative officer at WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, agreed that things are basically back to normal in advertising but said there has been a subtle shift.

"Creative people put parameters on themselves. They are deciding what is right and what isn't right as consumers ... and as Americans. They are filtering themselves before their work even gets to me."

Other agency executives believe that the terror attacks have made the advertising business less creative.

"Most commercials are still not very good," said Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito Verdi. "The same challenges we had on Sept. 10, we still have today."

But, Mr. Silver points out, "There's probably no better time to stand out now. There's practically no good advertising on the air. The few cases of decent advertising out there just leap out at you."

other factors

Mr. Boyko, for one, believes the creativity decline is not a result of Sept. 11. "It's been happening over the past few years and has to do with the economy," he said. "Historically, when things get tight, creativity must answer to rational reasons why a project is being advertised, instead of just going out with humor."

Mr. Silver said that his agency isn't changing its strategy because of Sept. 11. "But there are some things that you can't go near," he said.

Mr. Verdi said that his shop created a spot for Linens `N Things that featured an imploding building. "We obviously will not be airing that commercial," he said.

"We are not going to stop trying out new ideas," said Mr. Silver. "But we will definitely steer away from anything that would remind people of the events of 9/11. Personally, I can't wait for Sept. 12."

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