OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

When it came to advertising related to the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that rocked America a year ago, discretion was certainly the better part of valour.

Maybe that's because few if any have ever called Madison Avenue valourous.

But even if discreet is the term of choice only by default, it still aptly describes the mindset of agencies, advertisers and the media surrounding 11 September.

Months ago, it was assumed that the anniversary would bring an outpouring of commemorative and patriotic messages sponsored by marketers hoping to strengthen ties with consumers who still are grappling with the aftermath of the horrific events of that day. After all, it's part of the national character to publicly wave a flag and shed a tear, then move on.

But in August, major advertisers started disclosing decisions to shun any editorial content - on TV and radio or in print - related to 11 September or, more dramatically, to skip advertising altogether anywhere that day. The reasons were worded vaguely, along the lines of that being "the right thing to do" or "out of respect", but the subtext was clear: a boardroom consensus was emerging that being perceived as exploiting the day for commercial gain would be corporate suicide.

Among those that opted to avoid attack-oriented coverage were Ford, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble. The list of those going dark was much longer, including mainstay marketers such as Coca-Cola, General Motors, Kmart, Miller Brewing, Nissan North America and Sears.

Sears went further than most, starting its blackout at 6pm on 10 September and considering as advertising any telemarketing efforts to sell repair services or collect past-due Sears credit-card bills, which all were suspended.

By contrast, the roster of advertisers pursuing business as usual, or creating special commercials and ads with messages of remembrance and resolve, was far shorter, limited mainly to those directly affected by the attacks such as Boeing, which built the four hijacked airliners, and the New York Stock Exchange, which was shut for several days.

That became evident well before the anniversary, as magazines published special "9/11" issues.

Ads in Time were clustered in the front and back, away from the section specifically about the attacks. In that section, there were 47 consecutive editorial pages before an ad page appeared. The next 32 editorial pages were interrupted for ads only twice.

The breaks between editorial and ad pages were more frequent in Time's rival, Newsweek, but the advertisers included such household names as Creative Technology, Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey and the Dominican Republic Tourism Office. A 96-page special issue of the third major news weekly, US News & World Report, carried exactly two ads: one was a public service announcement for the Red Cross and the other was a house ad, selling subscriptions.

It's no surprise then that other media reduced or eliminated their ad loads, either as a result of or in anticipation of the sparse demand.

Many special-interest cable networks such as the Food Network and the History Channel suspended regular programming for several hours to run special shows without commercials. And, of course, the many hours of coverage on the big broadcast networks was deemed news and as such not interrupted for spots.

Madison Avenue, take a bow. For once, you did the right thing.


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