Is Advertising Changed Forever?

Sheryl Crow and Roy Orbison perform renditions of Supertramp’s “Give a Little Bit” for the Gap. Molly Simms touts sweater sales for Old Navy. David Cassidy serenades spokes woman Wendy Braun for Mer vyn’s. Kirstie Alley, after toppling a Christmas tree, forces a homeowner to buy new presents at Pier 1.

December’s gift-buying season, as in every year, brought advertising that was predominantly about product, price points and spreading retail cheer. Americans could seemingly cel ebrate consumerism without the emotional baggage of war.

The traditional buoyancy of holiday ads offered a relief from the deluge of patriotic pitches, heart-wrenching con dolences and sometimes awk ward tributes that became commonplace after Sept. 11. It also provided a bridge to move advertising into the new normal.

While themes of Americana and peace will surely run their course through the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, agencies are concluding that what was right for clients before Sept. 11 is—with some adjustments here and there—right for them after. “Life …,” notes the final supers in a San Francisco Chronicle spot showing images of the attacks and the war, “Continued.” And it has.

“Short term, Sept. 11 stung the economy and, of course, exacerbated clients’ fears,” notes Eric Silver, creative director at Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York. “But luckily we are a nation of short-attention-span theater.”

Alex Bogusky, vice chairman and creative director of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami, says Sept. 11 has had few effects on ad content. “At least for now, what’s funny has changed a little bit—people getting hurt isn’t funny,” he says. “But I honestly don’t think advertising has changed too much.”

As always, if done properly, advertising will follow the rhythms of Ameri can culture and react appropriately. “Creative people inherently feel where the right place is,” says Bogusky. “It’s not about what’s correct or trends.”

As illustrated by an E*Trade spot from last year’s Super Bowl, trends are short-lived. A chimp rides into a ghost town on horseback and sees a devastated metropolis. Warehouse-style lofts lie in ruins, a sports car is covered in dust, and storefront signs from opulent, frivolous times—”,” reads one—litter the ground. “Invest wisely,” we’re told.

With a wink and a dare, the spot, created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, distinguished the Web-based financial-services company while lightheartedly commenting on the era’s dot-com fervor. It was a reminder of what had, up to then, caused the most significant financial and psychological trauma the ad business had seen in years. Today, it would not be possible to use the images—fallen buildings, crumbling concrete, dust-and-debris-covered side walks—as harmless visuals for hyperbolic humor.

Likewise, the award-winning “Y2K” Nike spot from Wie den + Kennedy showing San Francisco under siege also would seem inappropriate now—a man goes on his morning run on New Year’s Day, seemingly oblivious to the chaos erupting around him. “Organ Donor,” from TBWA\Chiat\Day, San Francisco, was an attention-grabbing Levi’s spot from last year’s Super Bowl that showed medics attending to an accident victim (albeit one who fell off a carousel horse) so they could transport his jeans via a cooler to a bedridden teen.

With horrifying images of the collapsing World Trade Center burned into the American psyche, the new normal will be distinguished from the old in a few obvious matters of taste and humor.

But as long as the reality of war and the aftermath of the attacks linger in the consciousness of the American public, creatives seem to be treading carefully. “Everyone is trying to figure out what to do on the other side,” says Chuck McBride, North American creative director of TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco. “Humor is going to be less sharp. It won’t be as wicked.”

Dark, violent or inhumane images are also on hold for now. “Explosions are probably off-limits,” notes Silver, whose agency has often used exaggerated violence to lend humor to campaigns for Budget, Outpost and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

Also off-limits, says Silver: “making fun of foreigners for a while.” Cliff Freeman’s Fox Sports Net campaign did just that, winning the Grand Prix last year at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes. The spots promoted regional sports coverage with absurd depictions of exotic sports matches in other countries.

Scenes of face-slapping from Russia and cliff-diving onto rocks in Turkey illustrated the message, “Sports from the only region you care about: Yours.” A once-naive and often-provincial America has learned something about the world since that tagline was written.

“We’re a kinder, gentler country and a kinder, gentler world,” says Cheryl Berman, chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, Chicago. “Before Sept. 11, people were very careful not to get too touchy-feely and emotional in their advertising.”

In the weeks following Sept. 11, the cynicism that had been a prevailing sentiment in advertising in recent years was replaced by sincerity—at least on the surface. While TV was dominated by news coverage, marketers ranging from airlines to local merchants quickly issued used black-and-white, text-heavy newspaper ads to offer condolences, tributes or comfort and encouragement. A General Electric ad with a sketch of the Statue of Liberty rolling up her sleeve and poised for action was typical of the ads’ sober patriotic tone. “We will roll up our sleeves. We will move forward to gether. We will overcome. We will never forget,” read the copy.

When advertising resumed on TV, companies tended to use a straightforward, direct approach, especially those whose businesses were most affected by the attacks. A planned campaign for United, for example, was scrapped, and its agency, Fallon, Minneapolis, broke a new effort showing United employees talking about their jobs. “We just wanted to reflect their feelings,” says David Lubars, the shop’s president and executive creative director. “We didn’t want to put a layer of advertising craft over it.”

That sentiment could last well into the new year. “Ad vertising has gotten a little more honest, a little less gimmicky. Clients aren’t into very ex pensive production values and tricky stuff,” says Berman, whose shop recently launched a U.S. Postal Service campaign featuring postal workers talking about how their jobs help people connect. “I don’t think anything is more powerful than the truth.”

Many advertising efforts doubled as public-service ads, making pleas for patriotic consumerism. “Our business is commerce,” says Ted Sann, vice chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America. “The country has got to get up and running.” BBDO created Sept. 11-related spots for the New York Stock Exchange, General Electric and Visa and, more recently, the celebrity-driven “New York Miracle” spots aimed at bolstering tourism.

The last few months have also seen a deluge of flag-waving imagery peppered with words like “freedom” and “united,” the new must-have catch phrases of the time. Some clients, like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, found their brand space ideal for the nation’s newfound love of all things red, white and blue, while others simply wrapped themselves in stars and stripes in an effort to seem current. The message became diluted by the sheer volume of the efforts.

“If we never talked about America and patriotism before, why should we talk about it now?” asks Graceann Bennett, director of planning at Arnold in Boston, which has produced a weekly “mood and mind-set” study since Sept. 11 to help get a read on consumers. “People want to count on brands and want them to remain the same in some way. If we radically shift our message, it will be more disorienting than appealing or helpful in any kind of way.”

The key to speaking to consumers is the same as it has always been: listen closely, react quickly and do what feels right. “The day, the week and even the month following, it felt like the entire world was forever altered,” says Silver. “But time heals all wounds, as they say. My guess is now more than ever we are craving a return to normalcy.”