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Is it ever OK to mention 9/11 in an ad?

For the last few days, I’ve been looking at 9/11-related ads and trying to formulate a good rule when it’s OK to mention tragedy in marketing. I think I finally came up with something while leafing through today’s paper.

In today’s New York Times, many businesses are running ads marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks. For instance, pages 2 and 3 of the A section are framed in 1/9-page ads with expressions of tribute and remembrance from luxury brands that usually advertise on those two pages.

New York Times newspaper 9/11 Ads

Most of these ads are spare and in good taste. For example:

Harry Winston, Chopard 9/11 Ads

Fashion brands are also paying tribute. In the Sunday Styles section, Tommy Hilfiger (back page) and Ralph Lauren (page 5) each bought full-page, full-color, patriotic ads.

Ralph Lauren 9/11 Ad

Tommy Hilfiger 9/11 Ad

So far so good. But one ad felt really off the mark. I think this effort, for watchmaker Tourneau, falls flat:

Tourneau watches 9/11 ad

Ugh. This ad literally summons the idea of checking your Tourneau watch as planes explode and buildings collapse. The reference to timekeeping makes this ad feel compromised. It’s not a pure expression of tribute, it’s also a pitch for watches.

A similar problem accounts for why I dislike the 9/11 marketing by StarbucksClear Channel and Forest City Ratner. They use a tragedy to promote what they sell.

Taking these examples into account, here’s my rule:

If your ad mentions a tragedy, it shouldn’t mention your product.

Running an ad with a message of community support, with your logo at the bottom, seems to be fine.

But an event like 9/11 is so personal to so many people that capitalizing on it to sell something is awfully insensitive. It also probably won’t work as advertising. Who wants to buy something that makes them feel sad?

* * * *

Update: I’m adding some more examples of 9/11 anniversary ads. From my friend Renée comes two pieces of awful 9/11 merchandise that are being hawked in newspaper coupon inserts. And from BagNewsNotes comes a curiously tone-deaf ad from defense contractor Lockeed Martin.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Advertising


  1. Tena says:

    What about the add that Budgweiser did with the clydesdales? Tasteful or not?

  2. Daryl Lang says:

    Here’s that Budweiser ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SKJ5vj-1j4
    It’s the same as the ad they ran in 2001, but they drew the new World Trade Center tower into the skyline.
    I don’t care for it. It feels like they’re trying to sell beer.
    There were posts about it today on Ad Age and Adweek — some people liked it, but some people thought it was insensitive.

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