State Farm, Verizon, and Budweiser were among the companies that aired 9/11 tribute commercials during NFL games on Sunday. How you felt about them—and they were certainly seeking a reaction, preferably a misty-eyed one—may have depended on your general view of the role and scope of corporate messaging. If you feel that big companies have every right to share and comment on the experience of public life, you probably loved them. If you feel their perspective is always skewed and self-interested, and that any expression of sympathy is therefore unreliable or even exploitative, you probably hated them.
Or perhaps it's not that black and white. Judging by the reactions on Twitter and elsewhere, for many viewers it seems to come down to execution. Right or wrong, a nicely produced commercial can be celebrated as a lovely tribute—a poorly produced one can be slammed as profiteering. For many, the motive almost doesn't matter—if the message is rendered beautifully enough, they'll give the company the benefit of the doubt.
Of the three advertisers, State Farm gets points for putting in the most work. It produced a brand-new spot, as opposed to Bud and Verizon, whose ads were repurposed from ones that aired years ago. State Farm brought in Spike Lee, who filmed nearly 150 schoolchildren, ages 8-11, from the New York City area, showing them visiting four firehouses and thanking firefighters with their own version of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' song "Empire State of Mind." The spot is full of loving New York imagery, closing on the new 9/11 memorial and the words "Never forgotten. Forever grateful." To its fans, the ad is poignant and adorable. To its critics, the use of children just adds to the unpleasantness of it.
Of the other two spots, Budweiser's earned more plaudits. The brewer reprised—with a twist—one of its most well-received Super Bowl ads of all time: the spot from February 2002 in which the Clydesdales visit New York and kneel before Ground Zero. The new version shows One World Trade Center under construction in the background. For whatever mysterious reason, people can't resist the Clydesdales. And the subtle change to the spot is a nice idea deftly handled—a wonderful touch, unless, you know, you thought the whole thing was manipulative and despicable.
The Verizon spot seemed to get the worst reaction of the bunch. The images of children (yes, once again, it's children) and the Statue of Liberty seem like borderline stock footage—a tribute that feels all too perfunctory, and thus not a tribute at all.
Cynics will make one final damning point—two of the three advertisers, Verizon and Anheuser-Busch, are NFL marketing partners. (State Farm used to be an official partner, but is no longer.) They got to look more compassionate than their competitors simply by signing a check. In a way, they bought the rights to 9/11—a commercial transaction on what was supposed to be sacred ground.
Client: State Farm
Agency: DDB, Chicago
Chairman: Bob Scarpelli
Chief Creative Officer: Ewan Paterson
Group Creative Director: Barry Burdiak
Creative Director: John Hayes
Creative Director: Geoff McCartney
Art Director: Gordon West
Executive Director of Integrated Production: Diane Jackson
Executive Producer: Scott Kemper
Production Business Manager: Lindsay Vetter
Music Producer and Integration: Eric David Johnson/DJ Bunny Ears
Music Production Manager: Linda Bres
Broadcast Talent Manager: Rubye Hardy
Production Company: Pony Show
Director: Spike Lee
DP: Ellen Kuras
Executive Producer: Susan Kirson
Executive Producer: Jeffrey Frankel
Producer Fern Martin
Editing Company: Lost Planet
Editor: Hank Corwin
Assistant Editor: Chris Kursel
Assistant Editor: Ben Rodriquez
Executive Producer: Gary Ward
Executive Producer: Krystn Wagenberg
Producer: Jaclyn Paris
Producer: Terry O’Gara
Colorist: Clark Muller
Lead VFX Artist: James Bohn
VFX Artists: Justin Blaustein and Eric Schrecongost
Mixer: Robert Feist
Music: "Empire State of Mind Part II"
Writers: Alicia Augello-Cook, Shawn Carter, Jane't Sewell, Angela Hunte, Al Shuckburgh, Bert Keyes and Sylvia Robinson
Music Director & Conductor: James Davis Jr.
Vocal Producer: Buryl Red
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Duckett
Recording Facilities: Manhattan Center Studios/The Grand, Jungle City Studios and Avatar Studios