Out of the Spotlight

During a weeklong vacation in my hometown of Salt Lake City earlier this month, I must have passed 100 billboards. Most of the messages, for car dealerships, cable companies and the like, passed right by without registering. But I couldn’t help but notice one, both for its message and its simplicity.

“Kidnapped,” it said in giant letters. “Elizabeth Smart.”

It had been nine months since her disappearance, and this billboard made me think about the case for the first time since … well, since the last time I was in Salt Lake. I didn’t think she would be found alive. More than anything, I felt sympathy for her family, who had to pass this public reminder of their pain every day.

Two days later, Elizabeth Smart was home. As I watched the news reports, I recalled the billboard and how the happy outcome could be credited, at least in part, to advertising.

It’s a bit of a stretch, yes. The big break in the case came when Elizabeth’s 9-year-old sister identified a potential suspect, who was later profiled on the news and on America’s Most Wanted. And all the photos, fliers and billboards around Salt Lake didn’t lead anyone to Elizabeth as she ventured around the city under a veil.

But through billboards, fliers and television—advertising media, all—the family kept Elizabeth on the local public’s mind long after she had faded from the national spotlight. The people of Salt Lake were not allowed to forget.

Did they remember any other messages? I certainly didn’t. The “Kidnapped” board broke through where an ad for Stockton-to- Malone Honda couldn’t. And rightly so. Serious messages deserve our serious attention.

And that brings up a question that advertisers are struggling with: With the country now involved in such a deeply serious conflict, how can companies expect people to absorb their messages about more mundane concerns? As I write this, the national terror alert has been upgraded to Orange. As you read, bombs are most likely falling on Baghdad. Who can blame us for not paying much attention to the new campaign from Kellogg’s?

Some people I’ve talked to about this say neither the Elizabeth Smart case nor the Iraq conflict has much to do with advertising. Maybe not, but any media executive will tell you that marketers don’t compete just with other marketers for people’s attention—they compete with all the media messages out there. For the time being, the most numerous and pressing messages by far are about war.

Advertisers and their agencies have been making contingency plans for months (see page 22). A number of agencies have conducted studies about how to manage marketing messages in the event of war. The good news is advertising is considered part of our “normal” lives. Very few people (11 percent of respondents a study by J. Walter Thompson) feel it is inappropriate during wartime. Lighthearted, sensitive humor is appreciated; hyperbole is not.

Still, it will be hard to feel “normal” in the coming days, and easy to be oblivious or even hostile toward advertising—to feel that it distracts us from what is important. Were they to run, ads showing women catfighting or Tide getting clothes whiter than Cheer would feel pointless.

But it might be worthwhile to remember the Elizabeth Smart billboard. And to realize that even though advertising seems meaningless right now, sometimes, in its own small way, it can do more than we think.