Advertising against a tragic event is a delicate balancing act for American businesses. Do they seize the opportunity and risk being accused of being opportunistic? Do they keep quiet, risking appearing out of touch or unpatriotic? What is the line between remembrance and commercialization?
Budweiser will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a commercial showing a team of Clydesdale horses pulling a red Budweiser-branded waggon across the Brooklyn Bridge and down a cobblestone street in Lower Manhattan on Saturday, during a break in an afternoon football game. The horses, standing on the grass of Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., lower their heads in front of the city skyline, where the Tribute in Light installation is visible against the twilight sky in the final image.
The 60-second commercial, which debuted on YouTube on Friday, is an updated version of Budweiser’s “Respect” ad, which debuted five months after the attacks during the 2002 Super Bowl. On the occasion of the company’s tenth anniversary, in 2011, the commercial was re-released.
The new commercial will air during the CBS broadcast of the college football game between the Air Force Falcons and the Navy Midshipmen, as well as again later in the evening on Fox during the baseball game between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets.
“By releasing the film sparingly, we preserve the significance of the day and truly pay the respect that those who were lost deserve,” said Daniel Blake, vice president of marketing at Anheuser-Busch InBev, Budweiser’s parent company.
Budweiser received special permission from Congress and Rudolph Giuliani, then-mayor of New York City, to dispatch a helicopter to capture the Clydesdales crossing into the city and bowing toward the skyline from Liberty State Park for its first commercial referencing Sept. 11, shot soon after the attacks.
The new version concludes with a message in white letters against a black background, accompanied by a stirring melody: “Twenty years later, we’ll never forget.” The company logo then appears for seven seconds, followed by mentions of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and the Never Forget Fund onscreen. There is no narration in the form of a voice-over.
“Obviously, we wanted to do it in a very subtle way, but it’s important to make sure that people know where the spot is coming from and who is creating the film itself,” Mr. Blake explained.
Budweiser is just one of many companies that have created or commissioned advertisements to commemorate the tragic day in American history. Spike Lee directed a well-received State Farm commercial in 2011 that featured children serenading grateful New York firefighters with “Empire State of Mind.”
There have also been a number of blunders, such as the Wisconsin golf course that offered special pricing based on the date. AT&T removed a Twitter post featuring an image of the Tribute in Light installation with the message “Never Forget” as part of a smartphone advertisement.
A Texas mattress store advertised a Twin Towers sale with a commercial that featured two mattress stacks that were knocked over. The store was forced to close due to national attention and widespread criticism. Miracle Mattress, the ad’s parent company, issued an apology, calling the ad “thoughtless and crude.”
Companies that attempt to address tragedy in the hopes of tapping into themes of togetherness and hope risk instilling feelings of rage and loss, according to Cait Lamberton, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The September 11th anniversary is particularly difficult because emotions have become complicated as a result of years of war and trauma.
“It’s a little safer when it’s more recent, because there’s a much better sense of what the unified narrative is,” Professor Lamberton said. “The narrative is much more fragmented for this.”
However, in the midst of the pandemic and a national reckoning over racism, American corporations have been more willing to try to bond with potential customers over current issues.
“Brands that fail to recognise massive shared tragedy risk appearing blind or apathetic to the suffering of a large portion of the country,” Professor Lamberton warned.
This year, as television networks and streaming platforms air Sept. 11 anniversary specials, many viewers are complaining that the programmes cut to commercials that are disturbing in context, such as a Sling TV streaming service ad that begins with a nervous-looking flight attendant asking if anyone on board knows how to fly an aeroplane.
According to Ted Wietecha, a spokesman for Dish Network, Sling TV’s parent company, the ad was removed on Thursday. In an email, he stated that the company apologised to viewers.
“The timing and placement of this specific ad should not have occurred,” he said. “While we use keyword blocking for digital ad purchases, we also have the ability to block ads from running on specific stations and times of day for TV and streaming.”
This week, MSNBC aired an ad-free premiere of the documentary film “Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11.” In an email, a spokesman stated that “the importance of the storey and content far outweighed any commercialization of this programme,” and that the network may consider selling ad space during repeat airings.