A Review of 'Patriotic' Advertising Since Sept. 11

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"When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanliness of its hands and purity of its heart." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson didn't see the planes hit the Twin Towers.

If the transcendentalist philosopher-poet was suspicious of the inchoate, and often even blind, emotion behind expressions of patriotism, he may have been giving short shrift to the underlying genuineness of the sentiment. While jingoism is a particularly ugly form of self-righteousness, not all patriotism is jingoism. Hyperventilated speech isn't necessarily the consequence of small-mindedness or chauvinism or hypocrisy. Sometimes an abundance of feeling simply overwhelms or, shall we say, transcends the limits of language. Love of country is difficult to articulate without sounding simplistic or banal. What love isn't?

Photo: AP

Last refuge of a scoundrel
On the other hand, when a whole advertising industry is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am also fain -- which means "compelled" -- to wonder who is pure and who, in desperation, is seeking the last refuge of a scoundrel.

The response by advertisers in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was in many ways tempered, responsible, even touching. The first changes occurred in newspapers, where weekly contracted retail display ads had their ordinary messages stripped out -- specials on furniture and jewelry, for example -- and replaced with expressions of condolence. Innocent announcements about $599 tennis bracelets probably would have looked vulgar, so the gesture was welcome.

Condolences from beer companies
Then came the spontaneous condolences, heartfelt expressions of sympathy, anger, grief and solidarity from sources

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as widely varied as Miller Brewing Co., Aer Lingus, the Kingdom of Qatar and Dinty Moore. These were thoughtful as well. All over the world, including the corporate world, people were overcome by the enormity of the horror, giving rise to dual feelings of helplessness and purposefulness. Saying something was as close to doing something as they could get, so, like so many of us, they wore their emotions on their sleeves.

Whether statements of the obvious add much to the discussion is a legitimate question. The satirical newspaper The Onion certainly explored that line of inquiry with a story hilariously headlined, "Dinty Moore Breaks Its Long Silence on Terrorism." But if individuals draw comfort at a time like this by grasping the hand of the body politic, there's no reason corporations can't, too. At these moments of national coalescence, the lip service companies typically pay to their "communities" of customers and suppliers, and even competitors, actually becomes true.

Gratuitous sanctimony
I suppose I can snicker at Cox Cable for seeing the need to express its corporate feelings

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on Channel 2 24 hours a day. But beyond some mild embarrassment in the presence of gratuitous sanctimony, I'm hard-pressed to find the harm.

Would that this was the case across the board. But elsewhere, the excesses have been more disturbing.

In the first week, Anheuser-Busch saw fit to use a national TV commercial to announce its $3 million contribution to relief agencies. The ad ostensibly encouraged all Americans to follow its example, but the self-congratulation was hard to miss. This was perhaps not as egregious as previous episodes of corporate grandstanding. (It will be hard for anyone to top Makita power tools, which, following the Oklahoma City bombing, spent a fortune thanking rescue workers by way of calling attention to its own donation of tools. It was to gasp. Likewise Philip Morris's grotesque exercise in Kosovo, where a modest donation of food aid to refugees was boasted about in a multimillion-dollar media buy.)

Photo: AP
Still, axiomatically, philanthropy ceases to be philanthropy when you call attention to it. At that point, it becomes marketing. And mass murder is no occasion for marketing.

Opportunists and profiteers
There is, of course, no surprise that in the wake of any sort of calamity, opportunists and profiteers crawl out of the woodwork trying to turn a fast buck. Thus the spam-marketed offers for such indispensable trinkets as "Top Quality 24-Karat Goldtone Brass Christmas Ornaments" from Executive Industries in Las Vegas -- "Celebrate The Holiday Season & Show Your Support For Our Great Country!" -- and special enrollment opportunities from the health-club chain New Yorks Sports Club under the banner "Keep America Strong." To invoke tragedy and patriotism for goldtone or muscle tone is to demonstrate that you are crass, disrespectful and tone deaf.

What are we to make, though, of such national advertisers as Choice Hotels, Las Vegas tourism, American Express, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors? All have referenced the nation's travails in post-Sept. 11 ad campaigns in explicit bids to generate revenue.

The AmEx commercial, from Ogilvy & Mather, New York, is a folksy retail tour of lower Manhattan, where merchants have reopened for business. "Their electricity has come back," the voice-over says. "Their phone service has come back. Now it's your turn." This is a sweet, understated call to action, framing shopping as a matter of New York civic pride. Even with AmEx on the financial ropes, and even with its clear self-interest in retail commerce, the focus here is on the primary beneficiaries and the message is proportionate to the circumstances. From the automakers, no such luck.

"On Sept. 11," one ad from McCann-Erickson, Troy, Mich., begins, "the world as we knew it came to a halt. We sat glued to our televisions, watching events unfold that shook us to our very core. And, suddenly, the little things that had previously divided us became wholly insignificant. Now, it's time to move forward."

Terrorist attack and GM cars
The ad goes on to announce -- because what's good for GM is good for America -- interest-free financing on every new GM car or truck. The company would have been using some sort of rebate or consumer incentive at this stage, anyway, as it routinely does during auto-sales slumps. But here was an opportunity to position its givebacks not as corporate panic but as a solemn patriotic duty. Our patriotic duty, evidently, is to buy an Impala.

"This may very well be the most serious crisis our nation has ever faced. In this time of terrible adversity, let's stand together. And keep America rolling."

Ah, yes. The fabulous October 6,000-dead Sale-a-Bration.

Ford Motor Co., via J. Walter Thompson, Detroit, was right there on its heels with Ford Drives America, which asks us to applaud its generosity and self-sacrifice. "In light of these challenging times, we at Ford want to do our part to help move America forward."

Simply repulsive
Repulsive. Simply repulsive. While it is true that our political leaders have encouraged us to get back out into the economy, to pervert that message into a self-serving sales promotion is a cynical exploitation of the terrorists' victims and an unforgivable insult to those who grieve for them. Unlike American Express' appeal, the invocation of national interest here is a pretext, a transparent gimmick to convert a nation's inchoate emotions into sales. Furthermore, it is utterly unnecessary.

Announce zero-interest financing. Sing its praises to the heavens. Offer it and they will come. But in the name of decency, leave the sacred burial grounds of Sept. 11 alone.

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