Patriotic or Pandering?

by

Published: November 19,2001

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the corporate sales division of national catalog retailer Lands’ End began offering business customers embroidered American flags on personalized merchandise at no additional charge. On Sept. 20, The Company Store, another catalog retailer, handled the matter in an entirely different way.

The Company Store sent the following e-mail to its customers: “Dear Friends … when asked what we can do to help, Mayor Rudy Guiliani said to ‘get back to normal.’ In getting back to normal, we want to remind you that our Charisma bedding and bath sale is now in progress. This sale, with outstanding savings on this popular line of sheets and luxurious bath towels, ends Oct. 7.”

Almost as a postscript, the last paragraph read, “This reminder is not intended to be offensive or insensitive to anyone. It’s just our way of attempting to return to our normal routine.”

“These two ads represent opposite ends of the spectrum,” said Chris Ray, CEO of The Ramey Agency of Jackson. “I was impressed with Land’s End’s response, but The Company Store’s approach ticked me off. Both catalog retailers were trying to make money and stay in business, but one was responsible and the other did what seemed like a profiteering move.”

Most companies seem sincere with their post-Sept. 11th advertising strategies, said Greg Rose, Ph.D., associate professor of business administration at the University of Mississippi.

“You’ve got to give people the benefit of a doubt,” Rose said. “It’s hard to look at a company and say they’re doing it for cynical reasons.”

Anne L. Balazs, Ph.D., division head of business and communications and associate professor of marketing at the Mississippi University for Women, said the new ad campaigns could be interpreted both ways.

“We were headed toward a recession before 9-11, and 9-11 clinched it and put a cap on consumer spending,” Balazs said. “Some businesses that were not doing well beforehand took advantage of that and people are a little suspicious at this point as to whether industries like the airlines or major automobile manufacturers might be taking advantage of the situation. They may say, ‘please bail us out because 9-11 did us in,’ when it might have been poor management and poor sales before that that did the greater part of the damage.”

Immediately following Sept. 11, many national advertisers pulled current broadcast and print schedules and replaced them with messages of condolences. The Wall Street Journal had pages chock full of them. An Advertising Age columnist said selling “$599 tennis bracelets probably would have looked vulgar” in the days after the tragedy.

“The messages of condolences were seemingly heartfelt, and from a marketing viewpoint, was the right thing to do,” Ray said. “Being a good marketer means being a responsible marketer. While our job is to help get business moving again, we also have a responsibility to communicate with consumers in a relevant, meaningful manner.”

Most advertising changes have been consumer-oriented, not necessarily B2B-targeted. Morgan Stanley had a dual strategy to both markets with a message that culminated in “We’ll get through this together.”

And in a show of support and solidarity for retail merchants, particularly those in New York, American Express ran a nationally broadcast spot that opened with shots of retail merchants cleaning up storefronts. The voiceover said, “Their electricity has come back. Their phone service has come back. Now it’s your turn.”

“It was a nice, understated call to get people back to New York and to spend money,” Ray said.

Automakers like General Motors have caught flack for tying sales events to the Sept. 11 tragedy. GM ran this spot: “On Sept. 11, the world as we knew it came to a halt. We sat glued to our televisions, watching events unfold that shook us to our very core. And suddenly, the little things that had previously divided us became wholly insignificant. Now it’s time to move forward.”

The message was followed by information on GM’s latest sale featuring interest-free financing on every new GM car or truck as part of the company’s “Keep America Rolling” campaign. The copy read, “This may very well be the most serious crisis our nation has ever faced. In this time of terrible adversity, let’s stand together and keep America rolling.” The caption in Advertising Age read, “GM seems to imply that our patriotic duty is to buy an Impala.”

“Probably the most obvious change in marketing since Sept. 11 has come from car companies,” said David Kimball, president of Maris West & Baker. “Changing a marketing campaign can’t be done in two days because everything takes research, a number of strategy sessions, and maybe even testing. It’s something you can’t afford to get wrong and some large auto dealers are being criticized because of their hastiness to make a change. I’m not saying they are taking advantage of the situation. I’m willing to give them a benefit of a doubt. But the public doesn’t sit back and analyze these things.”

Ray added, “It’s not a bad thing right now to have a sale, that’s business. But a line is crossed when you try to connect your sale with the events of Sept. 11 and nearly break your arm patting yourself on the back for being a good corporate citizen.”

Kimball said the unprecedented tragedy left many companies searching for marketing protocol.

“We’ve never had a situation like this,” he said. “There have been no books written and there are no guidelines. You can only use the experience you have and trust your instincts about what makes sense and what doesn’t. Business will continue to thrive. We’ve survived many recessions. For the most part, well-managed companies will continue to be successful. The market will recover. It always has and always will.”

After the terrorist attacks, Maris West & Baker received calls from a couple of Mississippi-based clients with Southeast markets asking if they should run patriotic ads, Kimball said.

“They weren’t asking that question to be self-serving,” he said. “They were asking if it was the right thing to do. We said ‘no, let’s don’t,’ because they could be perceived as taking advantage of a very, very bad situation and that would be disastrous. Even if they had a presence in New York or Washington, D.C., markets, my answer would have been the same. We couldn’t see doing anything differently — and still don’t.”

Entergy Mississippi didn’t make any marketing changes, said Robert Lesley, company spokesperson.

“When it comes to day-to-day operations, 9-11 has made all of us at Entergy even more security-conscious than we were before,” he said. “As far as advertising, however, 9-11 has not altered our message. We continue to focus on the improvements that we are making on behalf of our customers in the areas of service, reliability and community involvement.”

Danny Mitchell, chairman and CEO of Jackson-based GodwinGroup, said the only changes he’s seen are that several clients are changing their strategies to meet the new way that customers are thinking without altering their messages.

Ray said none of The Ramey Agency’s clients have asked to make changes to their marketing campaigns to include a reference to Sept. 11.

“Our client base doesn’t have a lot of retail advertising to promote sales because much of what we do is general branding and larger strategic initiatives,” he said.

Ray added, “I haven’t seen any egregiou
s examples of people in the Mississippi area who are marketing irresponsibly. When the economy slows down and people get nervous about meeting their sales goals, that’s when people are more likely, in my view, to let something slip and put some sort of marketing message that might not be appropriate.”

Most ad agencies said there’s been no cutback in advertising. However, some projects for late 2001 have been shelved unti

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