Not long after Sept. 11, Ad Report Card looked at various examples of marketing gambits that seemed, at best, opportunistic. (We followed up with this column and with reader reactions.) The normalcy pendulum has swung quite a bit since those days, but the debate over mixing Sept. 11 and commercial messages lingers. One series of ads that has gotten attention—and criticism—on this front comes from Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond brokerage firm that lost many employees in the attacks on the World Trade Center. (To see the ads, go to Cantor's Web site, click "View Our Stories," then move your cursor over the words "Ad Campaign" and click on any of the head shots that come up; you'll need the Flash and QuickTime plug-ins.) Another campaign that's gotten a lot less attention than one might have thought is for a product called Raditect, which you can see via Ads.com (you'll need either Windows Media Player or the Realplayer). Viewed together, the campaigns make it clear just how cynical post-Sept. 11 advertising can get—and that, particularly compared to Raditect, Cantor Fitzgerald has nothing to be ashamed of.
The Cantor ads: There are several of them, and all follow the same basic format. In each, a Cantor employee addresses the camera against a plain background and talks about either the attacks or the firm's attitude in the wake of them. The comments range from the philosophical to the fatalistic to the defiant. The tone of the speakers also varies; some seem quite emotional, others controlled and poker-faced. Regarding colleagues who lost their lives, one man says, "Every single one of them would have wanted us to be rebuilding." Another, referring to the loved ones left behind, says, "We want to make sure that these families can go on. And that's why we're in business today." A third adds, "We have to succeed." After each vignette, the image fades to a message giving Web addresses for those who want "to work with us."
Exploiting the workers? So the question is whether these ads cross a line, essentially flaunting the pain and loss of the firm as a form of emotional blackmail and suggesting that doing business with Cantor Fitzgerald is a way of helping those who suffered a great loss on Sept. 11. (Perhaps, even, that the failure to "work with" the firm is tantamount to callous indifference.) I can see why some people might think the ads cross that line, but I don't. For starters, Cantor Fitzgerald really did endure an almost unbelievable loss that day; it's not like the basis of this ad was ginned up in the PR department. Second, pretty much everyone in these ads seems to be speaking from the heart—to be voicing an authentic belief that reviving the firm's business is the only rational response to an irrational event. Sure, that belief might take a form that makes some viewers uncomfortable, but how could it not?
The Raditect ad: This spot opens with black-and-white footage of a mystery man getting out of a car and clutching a metal briefcase. An ominous voice-over begins: "Next time, it may not happen from jetliners smashing into concrete and steel." Next we're shown a happy family, Dad playing with the kids as Mom beams from the kitchen. "But when it comes"—we see the mystery man again, then a shot of a nuclear reactor—"whether from a dirty bomb, nuclear accident, or even an earthquake that produces radiation, you won't have time to rush out and buy this remarkable early-warning system that could save you and your family's lives." A product shot shows a small black box with lights, which start flashing as a string of shrill beeps bleat forth, before we again cut back to mystery man, who is opening his briefcase, which apparently contains a scary bomb. Now we see the ad's narrator, a reassuringly gray-haired man sitting in an office behind a big desk with an American flag at hand, as he tells us to take down a toll free number ("it's important") and introduces us to Raditect, "the first affordable radiation detector for your home, car, or office." As he explains, vaguely, how Raditect is able to warn us of radiation "long before it's on the news," we see the happy family scrambling out of the house in response to the urgent beeping. "It delivers the head start you need to safely avoid the panic and the horror of radiation." Finally we're told that it costs $149 and that we can learn more at the Web site www.homelandprotection.net, as we see closing footage of an SUV zooming down a remote and empty highway—presumably the happy family fleeing to safety.
Exploiting your fears? Now this is an ad that crosses the line. Set aside the almost certainly preposterous nature of the product itself. Whether you agree that the Cantor commercial has at its core some genuine feeling, you can't deny that this spot is built on the exact opposite. It's an incredible exercise in phoniness—some vaguely authoritative guy at his desk, which is probably on a sound stage and decorated with rented props; the cartoonish family bugging out and presumably one-upping the Joneses and everyone else by being the only escapees on the block; the evocation of "horror" and, ironically enough, "panic" avoidance in the course of a scare-mongering rant; the unsubtle nod to "homeland protection" in the related Web address (isn't Raditect more about "homeland escape"?). Has any advertiser to date so blatantly tried to cash in on the base fears of customers? In all, a thoroughly shameful exercise.