Red, White And What A Deal!

Cindy Gallop didn't need market research to see the mood of the country had changed. The week of September 11, her advertising agency, Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty, was putting the finishing touches on a campaign for the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald. But when a fireball tore through the World Trade Center, it took the lives of nearly 700 of Cantor's 1,000 employees. Instead of rolling out ads, Gallop's staff helped man Cantor phone lines, comforting survivors. "It made us particularly attuned to how everybody feels," Gallop said. "The context of advertising has changed. And we're still taking the temperature."

Everyone on Madison Avenue is struggling to find a new voice. The edgy sense of humor, irony and glib materialism that played so well off the late boom era now seems hopelessly out of date. As marketers prepare for December, a month that usually produces 30 percent of yearly sales, they face a multitude of quandaries. Is the salesman's soft-shoe appropriate in a time of national mourning? Can one ignore September 11, and go on as before? If you embrace the moment, how to avoid the appearance of exploiting tragedy for commercial gain?

In the days following September 11, most companies pulled ads out of respect--and confusion. Behind the scenes, debates raged about how to hit the right notes. At Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia, marketers decided to shelve a six-month-old "Life tastes great" campaign. "Post September 11, we were taking stock of consumer attitudes," says Coca-Cola spokes-man Robert Baskin. "We found that the advertising would have been insensitive. Life no longer tasted good to many in our audience." Coke found, however, that consumers were receptive to themes of national unity. So Coke went back on the air with "We live as many. We stand as one."

Coke had stumbled upon an age-old truism. In times of national crisis, patriotism and national unity sell--up to a delicate point. The use of the flag as a sales tool can be traced to America's Civil War, says Cecilia O'Leary, a professor of history at California State Monterey Bay and the author of "To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism." After hundreds of thousands of war deaths, the flag became an emotional symbol to a nation in mourning--and was exploited by pitch-men for everything from whisky to widgets.

The backlash was inevitable. Between 1897 and 1905, 31 states passed anti-flag-defamation laws. Those laws are now best known as the basis for legal offensives against antiwar protesters, but that came only later, first during World War I and most famously in the Vietnam era. The origin of flag-defamation laws in outrage against tacky ads is largely forgotten.

Now a new revolt is brewing. GM waited nine days after the attack, then hit the airwaves with a red, white and blue campaign called "Keep America Rolling." Ford answered with "Ford Drives America." Aware of the peril of perceived oportunism, GM did extensive polling, says company spokesman Terry Sullivan. "In our discussions we said, 'We have to be very careful that we find the right balance'," he says. "We have research and (the response) has been overwhelmingly positive."

The ads prompted record sales, not least because they touted zero-percent financing, but also drew fire. In a widely quoted front-page critique, Advertising Age called the Ford and GM ads "repulsive." "In the name of decency, leave the sacred burial grounds of Sept. 11 alone," wrote columnist Bob Garfield. GM and Ford killed the ads shortly thereafter. Sullivan denies any connection to Garfield, but was ready with a prepared statement, calling the criticism "false, misleading and frankly offensive."

Patriotism is still big, but under many guises. Anheuser-Busch was discreetly minimal, with a billboard showing only the flag (no mention of beer). The National Restaurant Association was in your face, exhorting Americans to "Turn the Tables" by eating out. "Restaurants are part of who we are as Americans." None, however, matched the brazenness of turn-of-the-century advertisers, who wrapped products from cigars to toilet paper in the flag. "From Bull Run to Appomattox, men fought for a bedroom set and a fireside chair: So choose your furniture well," reads a 1903 ad for a San Francisco furniture store.

Many admen believe the future now lies in love of home and family, not country. "Even before 9-11, we knew that consumers were moving into a nesting phase," says John Kelley, CEO of Upshot Marketing. Yankelovich Partners consumer research says 9-11 accelerated a move away from "the extreme road warrior consumerism of the 1990s." "Radical materialism" was giving way to "self-expression" and family values. So expect the American ad culture to get even more mushy, with pets and children replacing the flag.