Madison Avenue Tries to Address Crisis

Dawn breaks and the sun rises, coloring the television screen a rosy orange.

"The flags are back up. They're playing football again. And thousands of people are once again experiencing the simple joy of buying a new car," a voice intones.

The ad says General Motors is helping Americans do that by offering interest-free financing on their cars, SUVs and trucks until the end of October.

"Keep the dream alive," the spot urges. "Keep America rolling."

It's just one of many examples of how Madison Avenue has responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A host of new ads alluding to the tragedy have ranged from the sympathetic to the patriotic to the inspirational.

"Advertising has reflected the feelings of American consumers," said Michael McCarthy, an advertising and marketing writer for USA Today. "I think Madison Avenue has been incredibly responsible and conservative about not exploiting the tragedy."

But some are critical of ads like those done by GM, saying they're using the disaster as a marketing ploy.

"It comes dangerously close to self-serving," said Stephen Novick, the chief creative officer of advertising giant Grey Worldwide. "It's extremely transparent in its motivation. It's an ad for [the company's] own purposes: to sell more of the product."

A GM spokeswoman said the "Keep America rolling campaign" was done in answer to President Bush's plea for people to get on with their lives and do what they can to help the country's financial situation.

"It's GM's response to the Bush administration request to support efforts to have economic recovery and keep the economy going," said Peg Holmes, the director of regional and marketing communications for General Motors.

There's no question advertisers are faced with a dilemma: Do they make reference to the disaster at the risk of sounding exploitative, or do they avoid mention of it at the risk of seeming insensitive?

"I don't think running and hiding during a crisis is a good strategy," McCarthy said. "You ignore it at your own peril."

In the first days after the tragedy, many companies — including Subway, BMW, Dinty Moore, and numerous others — took out full-page print ads and ran television spots expressing condolences to the victims and gratitude to the rescue workers.

"To everyone whose life has been impacted by the recent tragedies — you are in our hearts, our prayers and our thoughts," reads the white text scrolling silently over a black screen in a TV ad for the sandwich chain Subway. "We extend our deepest gratitude to the heroes involved in the rescue effort, and we applaud the millions of men and women who have demonstrated the true compassion and kindness that is the essence of the American spirit."

Novick finds nothing wrong with the sympathy ads, which he characterized as sincere gestures by companies to express their grief.

"Most of those ads were done with genuine, honest feelings of sorrow," he said. "But as we move forward, you will see less and less of the condolence advertising. The advertising industry recognizes that the time for that great bereavement is over."

More recently, sympathy ads have been replaced by patriotic, inspirational or back-to-business commercial messages.

"For some industries, there is no way not to deal with it — most notably the airline industry," said Ira Teinowitz, the Washington bureau chief of Advertising Age. "They have to tell people it's okay to travel. It's very difficult to do a normal campaign without making reference."

Teinowitz pointed to the marketing campaign launched recently by Southwest Airlines, which has a "get America moving again" message similar to the GM commercials.

"Southwest and GM are doing a good job of it — I think both ads are very tasteful," he said.

Novick said that during a national crisis, advertising is not only crucial for economic revival but also for soothing the public and resuming normalcy.

"People may very well take comfort in connecting with brands that have become familiar," he said. "Advertising needs to have a therapeutic role. People need to be lifted."