Opinion: What 9/11 can teach us about marketing in the time of coronavirus
In the weeks after 9/11, the ad industry responded with uplifting messages. The Ad Council released “I am an American,” a spot showing the nation’s diversity. BBDO led a pro bono campaign dubbed the New York Miracle. General Motors, for its part, offered up “Keep America Rolling,” combining a pro-America pitch with zero percent financing.
GM’s controversial campaign is the most memorable from the period. I respected, and respect, GM for having the guts to go on air 10 days after the tragedy with a campaign intended to drive business forward.
On the eve of that campaign, Ad Age quoted Ron Zarrella, then president of GM's North American operations: “We know this is a difficult time to talk about an incentive program, but GM has a responsibility to help stimulate the economy by encouraging Americans to purchase vehicles, to support our dealers and suppliers and to keep our plants operating and our employees working.”
This was a controversial campaign inside and outside the ad business. Critics saw the effort as jingoistic and disrespectful to those who had died. Some felt the tagline was too close to “Let’s roll,” the stark words of Todd Beamer, a passenger who on Sept. 11 rallied with others to try to wrest control from hijackers of ill-fated United Airlines Flight 93.
The “Keep America Rolling” slogan initially was going to be “Let’s Get America Moving”—similar to an early '80s GM campaign, “Let’s Get America Rolling.” Leading the home team is a longstanding GM view (“See the USA in your Chevrolet,” “Heartbeat of America,” a GM president’s 1953 declaration that “What was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”).
But debating the creative misses the bigger point: GM acted forcefully with a marketing campaign and financial incentives at a time when many marketers were tentative and uncertain. (GM, to be sure, was not the only marketer that pressed forward post-9/11. Apple in October 2001 launched its first hit mobile product, iPod.)
GM’s campaign worked. U.S. auto sales broke a record in October 2001, powered by the automaker and copycat promotions from rivals; 2001, a recession year, ended up as what was then the second-best year ever for U.S. auto sales.
The recession officially ended and economic recovery began in November 2001, just two months after 9/11.
Flash forward to a world once again consumed with fear. People—consumers, business people of all stripes—are in a fog, apprehensive for their jobs, for their lives, for the future.
I can envision that the National Bureau of Economic Research, the independent non-governmental arbiter of business cycles, will months from now (probably sometime after the November election) pronounce that the business cycle peaked—meaning we entered a recession—in February or March 2020. The U.S. jobs report coming out April 3 is likely to be scary.
S&P Global Economics on March 17 stated: "The severity of the blow from the coronavirus leads us to believe that the U.S. is entering recession—if not already in one."
For marketers, maybe the easiest course is to batten down the hatches—cut back, stay low, just hope to survive, not fight a seemingly losing battle at a time when they figure consumers don’t want to hear from them.
But the economy needs marketers and marketing. Consumer spending—"personal consumption expenditures"—in 2019 accounted for more than two-thirds of economic activity (specifically, 68 percent of U.S. gross domestic product). Marketing helps drive commerce.
I hope we see marketers … and media … and agencies willing to take bold risks to keep this economy rolling.
Marketers have an opportunity to give consumers a reason to spend—deals, products, services—even when we are bunkered up and hunkered down.
History demonstrates this. During the Great Recession back in 2008, I wrote a white paper, “Downtime Opportunity,” examining marketing and media innovation in the Great Depression and deep recessions. Ad Age itself is a product of the Great Depression in 1930.
A recession seems inevitable. The crisis we face is real and immediate.
There are huge differences between the coronavirus crisis and the tragedies of Sept. 11. But there also are similarities. Ad Age in late 2001 reported:
- “There's one word for ad spending: uncertain.”
- “The terrorism attack also led to cancellations of sporting events.”
- “The commissioner of baseball canceled all Major League games. The Emmy Awards were postponed. Broadway shows were shuttered.”
- “Movie studios will make some marketing cutbacks in the short term as they postpone releasing some films with terrorist or violent content.”
- "The travel category faces dim near-term prospects given terrorism and economic woes.”
- “Travel is of great concern to the marketing community, where pitches, company meetings and ‘face time’ with clients often involve plane trips from city to city. Many agencies … have told employees airline travel is a personal decision, and they would not be penalized if they didn't feel comfortable flying to clients or for other work-related business.”
- “Dozens of conventions and trade shows were canceled this month due to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.”
- “Video conferencing [is rising] as some aren't ready to fly.”
Quotes from industry executives in late 2001 seem eerily familiar:
- “At this point, the future is unknowable. We don't yet know how the U.S. government is going to respond. We don't really know how the consumer is going to respond going forward.”
- "We are on hold, and taking it day by day. Nothing is typical anymore."
- “Some advertisers believe their current campaigns are inappropriate for today's business environment and consumer sentiment and are working to revise their messages.”
- “Long-term planning is impossible. ... I don't think we will see a lot of clarity for some weeks."
A few weeks after 9/11, John Sarsen, president-CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, wrote in Ad Age: “For families, businesses, governments and, yes, for marketers, life will never be the same. Marketers already were grappling with a softening economy when the terrorist attacks occurred. What should they do under these new, difficult circumstances?”
The ANA’s suggestions at the time included:
- “Take care of your people. Go overboard in giving them time and space to emotionally react and recover.
- “Get really close to customers. Marketers must understand their new priorities, goals, fears and heroes. They must stay close because consumer emotions are likely to change constantly.
- “Help the nation restore consumer confidence. This is a new communications objective—above and beyond the ones marketers typically work against. But if major companies can weave persuasive, confidence-building messages into their marketing communications, our economy and our nation will greatly benefit.
- “Be sensitive about the message, tone, imagery and placement of advertising. Comb existing ads and marketing materials for irreverent, edgy, maudlin and comic references, and determine whether they are still appropriate.
- “Be prepared for the future. Create a marketing communications crisis plan. Anticipate different crisis scenarios that might occur.”
In Ad Age’s first issue published post-9/11, we offered a hopeful view:
“President Bush had it right when he urged that normal national life must return promptly; that the nation has to get back to business after last week's horrors. This is as true for those who work in advertising and marketing as in any endeavor.
“The economic life of this country, a foundation of our well-being, cannot be put on hold. Consumers, already anxious about the economy, need to see that business is not retreating and uncertain. …
“In returning to our particular business challenges, there is no disrespect for the victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. We are a caring nation that responds when disasters strike. …
“Yet emergencies must give way to normalcy. Baseball and football games will, and should, resume. Sitcoms and quiz shows and Macy's weekend sales will return. Companies—employers—must sell products, and so they must market. Ad schedules need to be planned and purchased, and businesses must look to the future.
“Time stood still during other crisis events. … After each, we sought explanations, took actions and grieved. We did not forget those times, and we will never forget what happened Sept. 11. But we moved ahead for the good of the nation in the wake of other crises. So it must be now.”
So it must be.