New History Channel Ads Remember Things Past

Mixing contemporary settings with dramatic historical footage, Ground Zero’s first branding effort for the History Channel seeks to boost worldwide viewership as the network continues its international expansion.

Three spots, expected to break in the U.S. later this month, open with contemporary color footage: a woman and child playing in the surf at a beach; a man walking his dog in a verdant field; and a businessman absorbed in a cell-phone call on a street.

The mother and child are suddenly surrounded by ghostlike images of soldiers who were on the same beach during D-Day. In “Hindenburg,” the man and dog appear against a background that dissolves to show the dirigible’s 1937 explosion in Lakehurst, N.J.; meanwhile, the voices of radio broadcasters overlap, with one issuing the famous cry, “Oh, the humanity.” The third spot, “Berlin,” shows that the businessman is walking on ground once divided by the Berlin Wall.

In each ad, the modern-day shot meticulously matches the historic location. The spots—which carry little copy in an effort to better translate globally—end with an onscreen tagline that will be translated into 30 languages: “Know where you stand.”

Independent Ground Zero in Marina del Rey, Calif., is also taking the tagline to the streets, spray-painting stencils on sidewalks and walls where famous events transpired or historic figures once stood.

History Channel, a division of A&E Television Networks, is marketed by A&E’s AETN International. The channel works with shops on a project basis after considering ideas from several agencies each year. Ground Zero was selected in October for the effort.

Last year’s work from independent Concept Farm in New York took a whimsical, sarcastic approach, showing folks missing historic events, such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth (a man gets hit with a staff and doubles over in pain).

“One of the mistakes advertising people make is to go to humor always,” said Court Crandall, creative partner at Ground Zero, who worked with copywriter Tom O’Connor and art director Jeff Lable on the campaign. “In the case of history, I’m not sure it is the most wise approach.”

Humor plays differently from country to country, which led to a more straightforward approach for this campaign, said Dawn Berkowitz-Ader, creative director for on-air and branding at History Channel in New York.

She said past campaigns have not won support from History Channel’s licensed-brand and joint-venture partners overseas. Unlike competitor Discovery Channel, which owns its channels, the programming provider “can’t dictate that the spots run,” said Berkowitz-Ader. “We approach the channel-building business by partnering with locals to determine what materials work best, taking into account local sensitivities.”

During the second half of 2003, History Channel added Italy, Greece, India, New Zealand and 50 territories in sub-Saharan Africa to its reach, bringing it to a total of more than 130 countries. The channel hopes to become available in Germany, parts of Central Europe and more areas in Africa this year.