Ads must be sensitive, but don't try to profit from grief

By Published on .

Now what?

We have heard admonitions from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others not to let the terror linger, not to let our everyday lives be circumscribed by fear, lest last week's attacks cease to be finite and make us all victims in perpetuity.

But in the immediate aftermath, so much seems so unseemly, and so much so trivial. Football games and pennant races seem trivial. Sitcoms seem trivial. Advertising seems especially trivial.

For our entire lives, we have lived in a society so stable that dry baby thighs, social anxiety disorder and "the cure for the common car" hold substantial importance. Since Tuesday, that luxury-that precious, essential American luxury to be preoccupied not with fundamental security but with ever-greater creature comfort-is in moratorium.

Just as the streets of lower Manhattan have been bare of traffic, the airwaves have been eerily bare of advertising. It will be an adjustment to see it again, slapping us with the mundane reality of commerce. There is nothing crass about commercialism; there are only times when commercialism seems crass. This is why there are no billboards in cemeteries.

Which is, of course, precisely where we are headed. For days and weeks, we will struggle with worry, horror and, finally-when the enormity of the carnage is revealed in body counts and personal stories-unspeakable grief.

With it will come a heightened sensitivity, a lower threshold of what may constitute disrespect and inappropriateness. Broadcast advertising is poorly positioned to reckon with this sensitivity. Nobody can quantify it accurately, but something like half the spots on radio and TV are looking for laughs.

The cult of comedy has its problems in the best of times. At this moment of national mourning, it may prove to be a crippling obsession for the advertising industry, because there is some material that simply will not play.

In this space, we have often railed at the sensibility that puts a punch line ahead of the feelings of thousands of viewers. We've never liked funeral gags, suicide gags, accident gags. When, in commercials for E-Trade and Levi Strauss, we see "victims" rushed into emergency surgery, we don't think, "How dark and irreverent!" We think that watching along with us are 25,000 people who have just had the scare, or the tragedy, of their lives in a hospital, and they're not laughing.

We can argue endlessly about how many people you can risk offending before your mordant wit or raunchiness is deemed beyond the pale. At this moment in history, however, the pool of the thin-skinned isn't 25,000. It is 250 million.

Tread lightly. For certain, for the next weeks and months, there can be no airplane jokes, no New York jokes, no military jokes, no injury jokes, no death jokes, no cop jokes, no fireman jokes. That alone will cramp the industry's style. But it's not just that. Levity itself will be viewed with suspicion and distaste. As the airwaves gradually resume regular programming and ad traffic, many a fist will be shaken at the indecency of content that 10 days ago seemed delightful.

If ever there were a time to err on the side of sensitivity, this is it. At the same time, advertising must resist a parallel temptation to pin a black ribbon to its sleeve. The most insensitive punch line, on the continuum of shamelessness, has nothing on the ad that wraps itself in the mantle of patriotic fervor or ostentatious grief. This is no time for bathos.

We take note that General Electric Co. and Cisco Systems, to name two, have pledged millions of dollars for the families of victims. Please, let these generous gifts not be announced in advertising, in the fashion of the 1995 national newspaper ad for Makita power tools after the Oklahoma City bombing, ostensibly thanking rescuers for the heroic efforts but actually calling attention to its donation of equipment to the rescue effort.

Disgusting. National suffering and brand building have nothing to do with one another, and never should. Not only is it contemptible to exploit the grief of a nation to turn attention on one's corporate self, such grandstanding trivializes the very human tragedy it seeks to exploit.

And, of course, the grotesqueness of that behavior only puts in sharper relief what really matters and what really is trivial after all.

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