Sense and Sensitivity

The concept seemed innocuous enough. A series of outdoor advertisements for Russell Athletic sweat shirts uses brash, tough-talking copy to play up New York’s feisty attitude and flair for fashion. Yet in the harrowing days following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, even a reference to Manhattanites’ penchant for black—a sweat shirt bears the tag, “Yes, New York. It comes in black”—seems wrong. The Atlanta-based clothing company decided to abandon the ads.

“Obviously, [the ads are] completely inappropriate at this time,” says Andrew Jones, chief strategy officer at Russell’s ad agency, WestWayne in Atlanta. Some ads also included the line, “If you need a sur geon to improve your body, move to L.A.”

An effort was quickly made to cover the signs, which are in high-profile spots like Herald Square (along side Macy’s) and the Holland Tunnel, by draping them with a giant cloth bearing a more perti nent message: “God bless America.”

As a somber nation grapples with the tragic events of Sept. 11, ad agencies and their clients are struggling to find a way to speak to consumers during “America’s new war.” Russell Athletic is just one of many U.S. marketers, large and small, that are now reconsidering ad visuals and copy that suddenly seem too insensitive for a beleaguered public to bear.

“We’re reviewing everything, and clients are reviewing everything,” says Tim Love, a managing partner of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York. “Tensions are high, and it’s a very subjective thing.”

Even something as peaceful as an image of a white dove gave pause. “It was supposed to symbolize end less possibilities, but we were concerned it would look funereal, given the events of last week,” says Peter Stranger, CEO of J. Walter Thompson West, referring to a spot the agency was working on but has now decided to scrap. “Everyone in advertising is looking at everything with a new sensitivity filter.”

What is clearly inappropriate now are ads featuring the Manhattan skyline, so dominated at its southern end by the two towers, and these have been the first to go. Merk ley Newman Harty & Partners in New York pulled a commercial for the New York regional Mercedes-Benz dealer group showing a gleaming car driving around the city, with prominent views of the skyline in the background. Screen copy talks about the high cost of everything in the city, from Knicks tickets to parking, and concludes, “We understand. We live here too.”

In addition to the skyline views, says an agency representative, “the tone is not appropriate.”

Young & Rubicam in Irvine, Calif., attempted to pull print ads for the Lincoln Mercury LS that show part of the Manhattan skyline but found it was too late for many October books. “We don’t want to do anything we know in advance would be inappropriate,” says Lincoln Mercury public affairs officer Nancy Carollo.

In the days following the attacks, IBM and its agency, Ogilvy & Mather, New York, began the process of pulling work from a campaign that had broken just a week before, promoting the company’s e-business solutions. The ads are centered on the word “infrastructure,” referring to a company’s computer network and its possible vul nerability.

One print ad, for example, shows the Leaning Tower of Pisa with copy that reads, “Infrastructure. Sooner or later, it matters.” After an alert from a volunteer who was assisting the relief efforts, the agency hurriedly re moved a billboard in the series featuring an image of a dam looming above a fisherman, from its West Side Highway location in New York City.

An e-mail complaint from a consumer prompted Boston agency Modernista! and its Milpitas, Calif.-based client Roxio, a CD-burning software company, to pull a commercial urging consumers to “Burn everything.” The 30-second spot, which first aired last month, was Modernista!’s first TV effort for Roxio.

The spot shows a man driving around an airport, doing an unusual job. “I’m the last of a dying breed,” he says. “Chasing birds away so they don’t get sucked into the en gine of a jet. … Imagine not knowing if tomorrow you’ll be replaced by a falcon. I burn and mix my own CDs to listen to while I’m out here.” A plane takes off against the Toronto skyline, and the ad ends with a woman saying the “Burn everything” tag in a mischievous voice, accented with a flame graphic.

“We recognized the concerns that consumers had with the ad, and we don’t want to further upset anyone else,” says Kathryn Kelly, cor porate communications manager at Roxio. Other spots in the campaign, en couraging consumers to use the software to burn music or images onto CDs, may make it on air with a new tagline.

Any reference to violence, no matter what the context, is being avoided. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, has temporarily pulled a Discover card commercial that’s part of the “slightly smarter consumer” campaign. The spot makes light of such events as a minor car crash and a plumbing accident. “Any reference to accidents are not funny right now,” says one agency source. “We’re not going to run it for a while.”

Even without violence or humor, some ads now seem cruel. Copy in a straightforward print ad from Blue Sky, Atlanta, promoting the time change of Lou Dobbs’ Moneyline program, asks, “It’s 6p.m. Do you know where your CEO is?” The ad was pulled from its scheduled run in Fortune.

With consumers facing a reality that only a few weeks ago would have been believable only as fiction, a campaign centered on a world-turned-upside-down theme is also no longer suitable. Farmers Insurance is holding a campaign out of Campbell-Ewald in Santa Monica, Calif., that was created to announce the company’s HelpPoint service, which allows customers to call Farmers at the moment of an accident. Though the public may now be more receptive than ever to the service, says executive creative director Debbie Karnowsky, the visual metaphor used in TV and outdoor ads to show how an accident has turned someone’s world topsy-turvy now poses a problem.

The spot, shot in Boston, shows a cityscape that is upside down, with objects such as a bicycle messenger, a mailbox and papers flying through the air, Karnowksy says. A man in the ad appears upset, but once he places a call to the insurance company, his world is once again righted. The ad would have kept the company’s existing tag line, “Farmers. Gets you back where you belong.”

Though earlier consumer testing for the campaign was positive, further tests are planned to determine how to proceed with the effort. “The creative shows a guy walking down a street that looks like Wall Street. It’s a no-brainer [to hold it],” says Farmers chief communications officer Jeff Beyer. “Last week, the world went upside-down—and our ad went out the window. There’s some uncertainty on my part if the ad will ever run.”

No one will ever again believe that a simple phone call can turn the world rightside up.