Patriotic Ads -- and Minuses

When a sales pitch is wrapped in the flag, it had better be done with care. A cynical use of Old Glory risks a red, white, and blue backlash

By Diane Brady

With the red, white, and blue a dominant theme in stores and on product packaging these days, it's clear companies think there's money to be made off the understandably patriotic response to September 11. Everything from bed sheets to underwear is suddenly boasting images of Old Glory. Meanwhile, a number of companies are starting to push patriotic themes in their advertising, from subtle tugs on the heartstrings with family-oriented messages to the Keep America Rolling mantra of General Motors.

Corporate America should be aware of the risk of pushing the patriotic angle too far, however. While consumers may be primed to do the right thing, they're also acutely sensitive to ad taste. As Keith L. Reinhard, chairman of ad agency DDB Worldwide, puts it: "At a time like this, there's a very fine line between being appropriately patriotic and disgustingly opportunistic."

So what's the difference? Perhaps it's the distance between companies that quietly donate money or services to help victims of September 11 -- and those that broadcast their good deeds. Everyone from Britney Spears to the folks at Anheuser-Busch seems eager to outline their contribution to the relief efforts. The beermaker even mentions in a press release that police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical workers will get free entrance to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Sesame Park until the end of this year.


  And that's just part of the company's generosity. As Vice-President John Jacob notes: "We can do no less than answer the call to help those who have been devastated by these horrible events." Meanwhile, some might argue it was not critical for Choice Hotels to put out a press release titled: "Choice Hotels Joins Travel Community In Denouncing Terrorist Attacks." Had it been the opposite message, that would have been news.

In some cases, companies may be stretching the patriotic call a little too far. Traveling to terrorism-torn New York may legitimately be cast as a good deed. But is heading back to the gambling halls of Las Vegas, as suggested in some ads, really the same thing? Then there are the images of American flags now filling newspapers, complete with subtle corporate logos underneath.

To be fair, business leaders are struggling with how to respond appropriately to the crisis. Companies ranging from Federal Express to PepsiCo pulled ads deemed insensitive in the days following September 11. Many others, including American Express and General Electric, tried to put out general messages of condolences and support. Heroes are popping up in ads for Coca-Cola, and family has become a recurrent theme in selling products.


  Patriotism is especially evident when it comes to the financial services sector. Suddenly, buying stocks in a down market is a duty. The New York Stock Exchange's patriotic "Let Freedom Ring" was genuinely touching. Even though the NYSE's infrastructure was damaged in the attacks, its members bravely marshaled to resume trading just a few days later.

However, "Lord Abbett investment recommendation: America", as one ad for the investment firm stated, is a little too much. Charles Schwab is another firm encouraging Americans to stand tall -- and invest. Buying shares of a company that has seen its fortunes suddenly change may be patriotic, but it doesn't always make good sense. After all, even the proudest Americans are more drawn to a good deal than a good cause.

In many cases, an overt appeal to patriotism isn't necessary or palatable. Take the Big Three carmakers. The Commerce Secretary asked them to pump up demand, which they've done with 0% financing. Given the state of the economy, these guys would be offering rebates and discounts right now in any case.

So why does GM have to boast that it's aiming to "Keep America Rolling," while Ford pledges to "Help Move America Forward?" Free financing can slice up to $4,000 off the total cost of a $22,000 car. For many, that's reason enough to buy. Wrapping those sorts of deals in Old Glory, and doing so to the accompaniment of chest-beating rhetoric, just adds a saccharine tone to what is otherwise a great deal.


  DaimlerChrysler is only slightly more subtle. Its "Home for the Holidays" program offers Americans "peace of mind" as they travel by car with an extended warranty. (Hint: Who in their right mind wants to fly?) George Murphy, the company's senior vice-president for global brand marketing, says the pitch simply reflects research that shows a growing consumer demand to drive this season.

And, he explains, "they said they'd love anything that gives them a little peace of mind at this period." Never mind that the original warranty covers the entire car for three years. Given that this is an "extra special" holiday in which "we all want to be extra close to friends and loved ones," it makes sense to spare customers the agony of worrying about engine failure in 2005. O.K., the carmakers have long woven patriotism into their sales pitches, but some of this seems a bit much.

For many, simply opening their wallets is a patriotic act at a time when rising unemployment and economic volatility might otherwise tempt them to rein in expenses. A recent study by ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding found a surge in "defiant capitalism," with two-thirds of respondents spending at the same or higher levels than prior to September 11.


  Consider Jennifer Bagazinski, whose Halloween party took a patriotic turn this year. Revelers who would normally bring six-packs of British ale were instead showing up with Sam Adams, brewed in Boston. Bagazinski, a 26-year-old ad executive from Troy, Mich., supplied only American-made alcohol as well. Her patriotism goes one step further: She even felt compelled to drive into the country to buy a "noncommercial pumpkin" and recently rejected grapes that weren't grown in the U.S. "I want to help our economy and not somebody else's," she explains.

In some crowds, however, buying anything is a good deed. Look at Dan Oliver, who sat drinking Heineken with his pals at a Times Square bar on Oct. 29. "The mayor told me to buy, not buy American," he said, holding up the Dutch beer. The message: Get back to normal.

And normal means consuming a range of global brands, says retail consultant Kurt Barnard, who notes that "we're all accustomed to seeing the little stamp, 'Made in China.'" Moreover, those lines are blurring as Toyotas are assembled stateside and Nike footwear is made in Vietnam. What's more, patriotic instincts can split along generational lines. While older consumers can get weepy at images of the flag, the younger generation may be unaccustomed to patriotic themes in this age of globalization.


  Mark Gobe, head of brand consultancy D/G* Worldwide, argues that younger buyers are "much more sensitive to the types of actions a corporation takes." Good corporate citizens do better with this crowd -- and they don't need to take out ads boasting about their good behavior to make an impact.

That's not to say patriotism isn't going to be an important factor in determining consumer trends for some time to come. Brand America is certainly hot, with everything from flag-inspired items to firefighter gear flying off store shelves. Strategist Marian Salzman of ad agency Euro RSCG Worldwide predicts particular opportunities for "brands, images, and icons that recall the rebel or independent nature of the American spirit."

Still, Corporate America would do well to bear in mind that rebels are often the first to notice when they're being taken for a ride.

Brady is an associate editor of BusinessWeek in New York Includes reporting from BusinessWeek bureaus

Edited by Beth Belton

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