Advertisers changing their (stars and) stripes

Ad shops struggle to craft nuanced messages sensitive to the climate of the times. Rule No. 1: Avoid exploiting tragedy.

In the new, more anxious America, airline ads are hard to come by and luxury hotel chains are rethinking how to get people into their gilded lobbies.

Gone are escape and opulence. The new message from at least one upscale hotel is comfort and the opportunity for family closeness. Other companies are also rethinking their ad approaches - trying to figure out if everything should be draped in flags and if humor is still OK.

Advertisers are aware of the obvious landmines - exploding buildings, pictures of the World Trade Center. It's the subtler changes - like a greater desire for comfort food and a drop in interest in cosmetics - that have them asking Americans almost hourly what's on their minds.

"We're working around the clock on this issue. Our clients are anxious to understand consumers," says Graceann Bennett, director of brand planning at Arnold Worldwide in Boston, which represents Volkswagen and McDonald's. "How do we talk to them? What do we say? This is the big question [advertisers have]," she says.

Before Sept. 11, little was off limits to advertisers, whose edgy fare included women being chased by serial killers and images of scantily clad young people. Opinions in the industry vary widely on how to adapt to today's more subdued environment - from redoing everything to changing nothing - which is part of what's driving the nonstop discussions with consumers.

One visible example of the level of concern occurred this week when Abercrombie & Fitch, known for its racy clothing marketing, announced that it had canceled the holiday issue of a quarterly catalog because the content and tone were deemed inappropriate for the current environment. It's the latest in a recent spate of changes that include companies dropping words and images from their advertising.

"This is really unusual. I can't think of another time when the industry was so impacted by an event," says Dick Lynch, director of account planning at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis.

Figuring out what consumers need has taken on new urgency for advertisers, with the holidays just around the corner and the industry already contracted because of the economy. Now, companies are trying to make sure the money they are spending isn't on ads that are offensive.

Polls show that Americans are ready for ads to return from their post-Sept. 11 hiatus - recognizing they contribute both to the economy and the return to "normal." But some say current ads no longer fit with their lifestyle. As recently as last week, 50 percent of people surveyed by ad agency Mullen said they felt ads are irrelevant to the things they're thinking about or buying now. Usually that number is10 to 15 percent, the agency reports.

"Clearly things have changed," says Ted Nelson, a managing partner at Mullen in Wenham, Mass. He says Americans aren't going to stop spending, but they may spend differently - buying more electronic devices, for example, so they can have the ability to communicate instantly with loved ones.

Some observers suggest that Americans might already have been moving down a path toward embracing more traditional values before Sept. 11. But the events of last month have pushed both them and advertisers to think more about what matters. Already in response to research, ads are focusing more on comfort, simplicity, and family. And ad executives say such qualities as clarity, compassion, and sincerity will likely appear more than cynicism, smugness, and irreverence.

Tradition, Americana, and comfort

Working with focus groups, ad agencies are starting to look at everything from approaches that play on nostalgia (like reviving past campaigns), to those that highlight other aspects of a brand, such as the hotel chain offering comfort rather than opulence, or an automaker promoting a car for its safety rather than its sex appeal. Now is the time, they say, for building on relationships consumers have with products they know.

"The good news is that there are some very specific themes, [and] there are a lot of brands that fit those themes without changing a freckle on their face," says Janet Pines, worldwide director of strategy for Foote, Cone & Belding in New York.

FCB research indicates that many brands already fit into themes that Americans are saying are important, such as tradition (Coke), Americana (the Postal Service, Levi's jeans), routine (Lipton tea), and comfort foods (Campbell's soup). Given the way events are unfolding, these themes could continue for years, Ms. Pines says.

But existing companies must still execute ads that offer the qualities people are responding to now - and be sensitive about context. Well-known companies selling everything from beer to cereal have pulled ads recently that made outdated references to heroes or airplanes. Other ads have met the same fate as the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, like the edgy Truth campaign that shows body bags outside the big-city corporate headquarters of an unnamed tobacco company. It is intended to send an antismoking message to teens.

Reaction by advertisers has also included condolence ads and ones that offer inspirational or unifying messages, some of which are still appearing. The general feeling among those in the industry and some consumers, though, is that it's time to move on from those messages.

Questions remain about what role patriotism or support for the war will play in campaigns. Such ads have been offered in the past - like those that encouraged people to buy war bonds in World War II - but the pitfall is that they can appear exploitative. For some advertisers, it's uncharted territory.

Shortly after Sept. 11, General Motors rolled out a campaign based on the Bush administration's request for businesses to help with the recovery effort. The "Keep America Rolling" campaign continues through the end of this month and has earned both praise and criticism. Some critics call it too overt, but others say it speaks of moving people in a direction they want to go and works better than a shoe ad about getting America "back on its feet." More important, it sat well with consumers.

"After the car commercials I've seen about GMC's having 0 percent financing ... I think corporate America is following through on any responsibilities it has," wrote one online respondent to a FCB survey. That's what people told GM, too. "The overall public response has been favorable," says Peg Holmes, a GM spokeswoman.

One key to balancing selling and a tie-in message, say observers, is that the meaning must be clear. An investment firm that aired commercials in Philadelphia assuring people that their money was safe with the company didn't sit well with Scott Ward, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He found the use of the word "safe" ambiguous and wondered whether the firm really cared, or wanted to cash in on people's fear. "Any advertiser that attempts to gain in some way ... on the back of the tragedy is going to incur a lot of customer wrath," he says.

Best approach: nuance

Some ad executives say the answer to post-Sept. 11 marketing lies not in extreme changes, but more in sensitivity and nuance - and does not require making references to the recent events.

"We're not advising our clients to do something like that - where you actually bring up the events of the tragedy and refer to them in some sort of overt way," says Ms. Bennett of Arnold Worldwide.

The company's research bears that out. At the beginning of October, 69 percent of those they polled thought ads should stay the way they are, with only 11 percent thinking they should be more somber, and 20 percent thinking they should be more humorous.

Arnold clients such as Royal Caribbean are making subtle changes, such as putting more emphasis on port-city marketing - not explicitly talking about the fear travelers might have of flying to the port where a cruise departs, but suggesting that a cruise is a convenient getaway for those people who are already within driving distance.

Other of Arnold's clients are able to use existing ads while they evaluate what comes next. Volkswagen, for example, had an ad for its Cabrio that showed a group of 20-somethings driving down a long road to a party, listening to mellow music. When they arrive, they decide to continue driving instead of going in. "That's kind of how people are feeling," says Bennett, they are wanting to have "more meaningful soulful connections."

If consumers are reprioritizing and shifting their focus more to traditional values, Pines of FCB suggests, it might have started long before the collapse of the World Trade Center. In the spring of this year, the company was working on what it called "the new humility" trend. Driving it, says Pines, was rapid change in our basic assumptions about things we've taken for granted - from the dotcom economy to science. "Every other week you read about a new incredible discovery," she says. The result, is an emphasis on family and communication and "putting our values into action a lot more."

Staff writer Noel Paul contributed to this article.

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