Q&A: Aux Founder Alexander Rea Discusses Problems With Veterans Day Advertising

By Erik Oster 

Like any holiday, brands sprint to attach themselves to Veterans Day. Like any sort of “washing” (e.g., greenwashing, woke washing), the sensitive nature of the topic, and the troublesome aspects of seeming to latch on without actually supporting those who have served our country can make this especially problematic.

Alexander Rea, co-founder of creative consultancy AUX, has a lot of strongly held views on the subject. We caught up with him via email for a Q&A about Veterans Day and why it must be handled delicately.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


AgencySpy: What is your personal connection to Veterans Day? How does this shape your view of brand messaging around the holiday?
Rea: Multiple family members have served or currently are serving. I grew up in a military family with my father, a career Army man who served in active duty until retiring at the Pentagon as Colonel. He’s a Vietnam War combat Veteran with multiple Purple Hearts who is now dying of dementia, and my family is having an absolutely terrible time navigating the shitshow that is the Veterans Affairs administration.

Yes, there are a lot of other hashtags and conferences that get more airtime these days and for very justifiable reasons, but maybe we can all take a break for a second and support a community that we probably don’t know.

How would you define what you call “veterans washing?”

Every brand will drape their messaging in the U.S. flag and have taglines about supporting our troops. It’s no different than when every brand supports the African American community in February or puts a rainbow on everything for LGBTQ+ in June. What the fuck are you actually doing? USA Today published a list this morning of stores and restaurants that are offering discounts today. What about deals all year for veteran families?

Why have 20% only on Veterans Day? Is their service only worth impacting your bottom line one day per week? How about something that is available to veterans’ families? Where is that? Nowhere. Free cup of coffee at 7-Eleven today or maybe free calamari at Carrabba’s? All this past weekend, a veteran (and their families) could have enjoyed the “The Gaucho Way of Preparing Meat” with a delícia 50% off at Fogo de Chão, but that ends today.

Historically, what are some of the worst or most blatant examples of this practice?
Unfortunately, Veterans Day receives the same sales attention as Memorial Day or Columbus Day. If you watch TV, you’ve seen your local auto dealer’s ads. (Funny, you never see Pride Day sales at auto dealers, do you? Don’t steal that.) It’s just another reason to have a discount.

Where is the line between an honest attempt to honor veterans and latching on to this cause in an opportunistic way? When should a brand just hold back?
Serve the vets and their families. Don’t sell. What are you doing that makes a year-round impact on families? There are restaurants and stores that offer discounts all year. Insurance companies like USAA insurance, which offers exclusive benefits, products and discounts for U.S. military members and their eligible family members (disclosure: I use them for everything) have always been very upfront and vocal all year, in all of their media, about their support and constant value to members of the Armed Forces and their families.

What are some examples of a brand handling Veterans Day with respect and making a meaningful commitment to the cause?
One example is an activation that Baskin Robbins did last in 2016, where they donated 11¢ for every scoop of ice cream to USO. They have not done it since and their PR site has a broken link if you try to find out more.

What are some organizations particularly in need of support and/or contributing meaningfully to helping Veterans that brands could contribute to if they want to make a meaningful commitment to honoring veterans?
Not anything funded by your Federal taxes. I know firsthand how bad the Veterans Affairs organization is. Frankly, it’s garbage. Please consider donating to any organization that helps provide the much-needed service the V.A. cannot. There are many, but if you want me to pick one for you, go straight to the Wounded Warrior Project.