The day the advertising had to change

The tragedy of 11 September has forced advertising agencies both here and in the US to rethink the feel-good language and images they use. As America gets back to business, Nigel Bogle (left) assesses how the industry will reflect the sober new mood
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The Independent Online

How long will it be before Coca-Cola is once again telling the United States that "Life Tastes Good"? When will Pepsi Cola return to its "Joy" campaign? And McDonald's to "We love to make you smile"?

All over the US, advertisers and advertising agencies are pondering questions like these, and there are no easy answers. It is not simply a matter of gauging the mood of the nation. There is the added uncertainty about what lies ahead. An ongoing war, with the possibility of more attacks on American soil, may fundamentally change the values and aspirations of the American people. Will Coca-Cola conclude that a carbonated soft drink no longer has the right to tell a nation how life should feel?

In the immediate wake of last week's carnage, the very concept of advertising was under question. Was the whole idea of "selling" and corporate self-promotion crass and insensitive in such a climate?

That question didn't last long. The US is a patriotic country, and economic success is at the heart of that patriotism. A country like France may be culturally patriotic (the French are proud of their history, art, food and fashion), but US citizens are particularly acutely aware and proud of their nation's commercial prosperity.

That factor underpins the intense fear and shock of last week's events. By striking at the heart of the US business community, the two New York planes struck also at the heart of the nation's identity. Americans know that business success underpins and sustains their more general political, social and military standing, so they are keen to see signs – such as advertising – of resumed commercial activity and prosperity.

The pressure is already on advertisers to start spending again. In what is believed to be the first such advisory in its 84-year history, O Burtch Drake, President and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies stated: "Advertising can and will play a crucial role moving the country forward as we continue our recovery." But he also counselled his members "to exercise sensitivity as they begin to resume advertising".

Agencies and their clients are already discovering that this is no simple task. Merrill Lynch and Co ran an advertisement in Italy shortly after the attacks, launching a new investment product called LDRS, claiming that, "From today, the stock market has a new leader." The message was intended purely as a wordplay on "leader" and "LDRS", but it provoked complaints from clients who felt the advertisement implied that Merrill Lynch was now the leader in the stock market after the loss of lives at Morgan Stanley.

The tragedy has essentially polluted every piece of communication out there. The most innocent language and images have been contaminated because they're all seen through the filter of the carnage. An ad for Starburst sweets featuring a waste bin with the headline "Twelve chances to improve your aim" now means something sinister and new. The Johnnie Walker line "A simple idea can change the world" now has a fundamentally different meaning. Perhaps even "Just do it" has lost its innocence.

The challenge in going forward will be to realign the promises that brands make with what Americans now see as important in life. As John J Sarson, President of the Association of National Advertisers said: "The priorities, goals, fears and heroes of consumers after September 11 are a lot different than they were before that tragic date."

Talking to friends, family and colleagues in the US, one is struck by just how vulnerable Americans are feeling right now. The disaster comes hot on the heels of an economic downturn that was already provoking insecurity and challenging people to reconsider many of the values and beliefs that had seemed unassailable over the last decade. Fear has now been added to insecurity.

So, what kind of advertising will be appropriate and effective in such a climate? There are two issues: context and content. Context has, arguably, never been more important. Lighthearted commercials are already back on channels like Comedy Central and seem to have been accepted. But sandwiched between news coverage of rescue workers at Ground Zero, they remain wholly inappropriate.

Last week's People magazine decided at the last minute to devote its entire issue to coverage of the suicide attacks, but omitted to inform its advertisers, in contrast to magazines like Time and Newsweek, which ran ad-free special editions. Regular advertisements facing gruesome photography provoked a huge backlash.

So, media planners and media owners will have to rewrite the rules on how to reach the consumer, placing far greater emphasis on the editorial and programming environment.

In terms of content, it must follow that feelings of nervousness, fear and vulnerability instil a need for comfort, emotional reassurance and safety. So, we can expect that brand advertising will refocus on the elemental, fundamentally important things in life. And perhaps, most of all, on communal values.

Specifically, we can anticipate the following themes reflected in future advertising messages:

* Glorification of the family; a reliable, consistent unit with relationships characterised by selfless love. It is interesting in this context that teenagers asked to cite their heroes or heroines already most commonly identify not a film or sports star, but their mum or dad. This sort of attitude will intensify.

* A shift from the cult of the individual, away from all those .com entrepreneurs to a cult of togetherness, whether family, school, state or nation.

* Renewed respect for brands or people showing generosity, as opposed to respect for aggressive competitiveness. No more "ends justify the means", no more celebration of those who will go to any length to get what they want.

* Celebration of persistence and perseverance, rather than risk and flair. Risk was previously all about upside; now Americans are feeling the downside. The stockmarket drops mean everyone is seeing their pensions plummet in value.

All this would represent a shift away from both the assertive US advertising style and the idealised, sugar-coated slices of life and easy-going self-confidence that have been so evident for many years.

Can we expect to see similar shifts in advertising emphasis on this side of the Atlantic? In the short term, the industry reaction paralleled that of the US. Inappropriate advertising was pulled, especially in businesses directly associated with the disaster, such as airlines and investment banking. Similarly, among campaigns that were deemed insensitive were Budweiser's humourous "Real American Heroes" radio commercials and the Government's new smoke alarms film, which features tombstones inscribed with excuses that people have used for not fitting an alarm.

What happens next will depend on the extent to which we are drawn into the conflict and, in particular, if there are terrorist attacks on our cities. However shocking the images from America were, an attack of similar proportions on London would lack any diluting effect of distance.

But our culture is different to America's. In virtually all that we do, including our advertising, we are more understated and less emotional. In the US, too, to believe that the face of American advertising will be changed forever is premature. We are observing already an almost fanatical commitment to get life back to normal. The US is dealing with vulnerability by flexing its muscles and defying those who attack it. Part of that defiance may well be a determination to get advertising back to normal, too. It is interesting to note that the first advertisement to appear on CNN post 11 September was from Johnnie Walker. Its message? "Keep Walking."

Two factors may undermine that determination. First, if terrorist activity escalates on American soil and we see ongoing activity and perhaps witness the nightmare of biological warfare, then the world really will have changed and advertising will change with it. Second, we should not forget that many thousands of those who witnessed the destruction at close hand from windows and rooftops in Manhattan are the very people who create the advertising the nation consumes. The mood of the advertising community may have changed even more than the mood of the nation.


Nigel Bogle is chairman of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty