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As Americans head home for Thanksgiving, a coalition of marketers, media companies and the U.S. government will initiate a program of support for American military personnel who will be missing from holiday tables.

An ad campaign aimed at sending messages to the troops overseas kicks off this week, backed by a 15-member group that includes Circuit City Stores, Sony Corp. of America's Sony Electronics, Viacom's CBS and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The "Message From America" campaign encourages people who want to send holiday greetings to soldiers on active duty to visit Circuit City stores to videotape 30-second messages. The messages will be taped using Sony camcorders, burned on to DVDs by Circuit City employees, then sent overseas by the Department of Defense. Some of those messages will be edited into vignettes by CBS, then aired as public service announcements hosted by CBS sports and entertainment personalities. The PSAs will air on CBS and other Viacom properties, including MTV, BET and UPN. The Defense Department will distribute the DVDs to United Service Organizations and the Armed Forces Network, the military TV and radio network, to share with troops around the world.

Military family members can tape a five-minute message at Circuit City or at military exchanges. Those messages-not part of Viacom's PSAs-will be burned onto DVDs, and the families will be given special envelopes in which to mail them.

The campaign is expected to receive commercial airtime worth an estimated $5 million to $10 million through Dec. 31. Viacom is allocating public-service time to air the PSAs so the actual media buy-paid for by coalition members-will be less.

Greetings will reach 123,000 active-duty personnel on aircraft carriers, military bases and submarines. "Except for the most austere locations, there are facilities and [DVD] machines available to play back the DVDs," said John Molino, deputy assistant secretary of defense.

The program was conceived and implemented by coalition partners in just five weeks. It was inspired by Circuit City employees who since Sept. 11 have sent e-mail messages and inquiries looking for ways to help American service personnel, Red Cross workers and firefighters.

"We are proud to open our doors to Americans who want to participate in some way to acknowledge those who are defending our freedom overseas," said John Froman, chief operating officer, Circuit City.

The effort comes as Circuit City works to restage its business after exiting the appliance category last year. The retailer's sales fell 21% in the six months ended Aug. 31. The program, which will drive traffic into stores, launches Nov. 26, during what is typically Circuit City's most intense sales period. Circuit City will dedicate store personnel to the program, which it will also promote via a page in its weekly circulars. The chain will create at least one coalition-funded ad to run in Gannett Co.'s USA Today.

The campaign's anchor commercial, the 60-second "River," was created by WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York, Sony's agency. The spot, which breaks on CBS during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, had an unusual and circuitous evolution. Sony and Y&R produced a spot in March that focused on military people away from home during the holidays. The idea was that Sony technology helps connect people who are apart, said John Partilla, managing director, Y&R Advertising.

After the events of Sept. 11, Sony and Y&R decided to rework the creative concept for the ad, though they kept the elegiac Joni Mitchell track "River," sung by actor Robert Downey Jr., who performed it on Fox's "Ally McBeal" last year. Y&R waived its fees to re-edit the commercial.

The spot shows soldiers receiving messages from Americans via Sony compact DVD players. One woman's message: "You don't even know me and you're risking your life for me. Thank you." The spot invites viewers to visit Circuit City to record a message for the troops.

CBS will promote the effort on its NFL Thanksgiving game broadcast. A compilation of edited greetings begin airing during the CBS military show "JAG" the week of Nov. 26. A Web site, ( created in-house by Sony, goes live Nov. 20.

Contributing: Wayne Friedman

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