Just days away from the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, most of us are reflecting on the events that transpired that day and how they’ve affected our lives. It would be hard to find someone over the age of 15 who doesn’t remember where they were when they first heard the news. In my case, “heard” was quite literal, as I sat at my desk in a Manhattan ad agency located several blocks north of the World Trade Center. My colleagues and I heard the first plane strike the North Tower, and watched everything unfold from the window of the CEO’s office, simultaneously tuned into the TV reports of what we were witnessing first hand.
Those were my early days in the advertising industry. Certainly in the weeks, months and even years following the attacks, Americans were emotional and the ad industry was restrained. For most, the feelings of shock and despair we had in the wake of 9/11/01 have given way to reverence and reflection. However, there are some instances during the past decade in which an ad has stirred up those original feelings and provoked anger in many of us. Here are some examples.
A little over a year after the attacks in April 2002, a poster illustrating a dragonfly heading toward two drinks with the headline “Collapse into Cool” was spotted at a Starbucks just a few blocks from the WTC site. After some media scrutiny and several calls and complaints to the Starbucks national headquarters in Seattle, they eventually discontinued use of the posters.
In 2004, Bush campaign officials were put on the defensive over the then-President’s controversial reelection campaign TV spot that included images from the 9/11 attacks. Relatives of 9/11 victims accused the President of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.
In 2009, DDB Brazil and the World Wildlife Fund were widely criticized over a print ad depicting dozens of planes flying into lower Manhattan with copy that read: “The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it.” The extremely offensive ad somehow won a certificate of merit from The One Show that year for supposed public service, but it has since been withdrawn.
Earlier this year law firm Worby Groner Edelman & Napoli Bern ran an ad featuring a photo of a solemn firefighter holding a photo of the remains of one of the towers with the headline: “I was there. And now Worby Groner Edelman & Napoli Bern is there for me.” But the model who posed for the photo in 2010 wasn’t there. He is a member of the New York Fire Department, but only since 2004. And in the original photo he was holding a helmet, not the picture frame in the ad. The firefighter is now considering suing the law firm over the ad, saying it creates the image that he’s claiming to have been at a tragic event when he was not, and that he’s trying to collect money from this fund, which he has no intention of doing.
Most recently, USA Discounters (a credit company) has gotten some negative attention regarding their currently-running print ad featuring the Declaration of Independence in the form of the Twin Towers, with a footer that reads: “The things we stand for still stand.”
These are just a few examples that show while we’ve moved on, our sensitivity over this incident will continue to linger. Advertisers need to be mindful of that. When in doubt, play it safe. It may never be a good idea to run a 9/11-themed ad for financial gain.