US is unsure of how to act on September 11

To advertise or not to advertise? That is the question for US businesses in the run-up to the anniversary of the terror attacks. Polly Devaney reports

When internal A

merican carrier Spirit Airlines announced in early August that all seats would be free on its flights on September 11 2002, it received global media coverage. Even though the “Freedom to travel” offer received a mixed reaction in the media, it has put America’s 13th-largest airline on the map.

For a previously almost unknown airline it has been the marketing coup of all time – estimated to be costing them just $600,000 (&£387,000) – which can simply be written off as marketing and PR cost. For United and American airlines, whose planes were used as weapons in the September 11 attacks, it was an especially cruel blow. Neither can afford to match Spirit’s gesture as American and United operate 4,400 and 2,000 flights a day respectively, compared with just 90 flights operated by Spirit.

The official line on why Spirit is giving away the flights comes from chief executive Jacob Schorr: “We are saying thank you to the American public and our valuable customers for flying with us throughout this past year. These free seats are a token of our appreciation.” Schorr and a team of Spirit officials are even planning to be on hand on September 11 to shake hands with passengers. Presumably because they genuinely value their custom and not because they think they are exceptionally brave to be flying on the date.

While many commentators believe it is just a cynical marketing ploy, the American public apparently does not. When the free seats went up for grabs, phone lines were jammed with 140,000 callers and the website received more than a million hits. It took just seven hours for all of the free seats to be allocated and the offer was declared a resounding success by Spirit, which has now assumed the role of concerned corporate citizen. There is also the small matter of the fact that most people who took up the free flight will eventually want to return home and will have to pay for the privilege – probably on Spirit Airlines.

The travel industry is just one of those that has had to consider how to mark the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. While many companies have set aside funds to make cash contributions to mark the anniversary, some are questioning the value of such gifts, given the huge sums – well over $2bn (&£1.3bn) – that have already been given to September 11 charities and related relief efforts. Corporate America has received acclaim for the low-key manner in which many gifts were made in response to the attacks, with so few overt marketing or public relations tie-ins. The general feeling is that anniversary gifts or participation in commemorative events should be undertaken in the same spirit.

For marketers there is the question of whether to advertise products or services on that day. Advertisers, wary of consumer backlash, are approaching the day with caution, while media sellers anticipate a major slowdown. While the American public seems to think free flights on September 11 is fine, a survey by WPP Group’s Lightspeed Research found that only 34 per cent of consumers believe it is acceptable to run any advertising on the one-year anniversary of the terror attacks. “The first anniversary of September 11 is not a good day to sell hamburgers,” according to Rich Hamilton, chief executive of Zenith Optimedia Group Americas.

Americans’ feelings about the day are mixed and too complex to draw a single conclusion from them. The Lightspeed survey respondents said they were slightly more likely to support tele-vision advertising on programmes that commemorate September 11, with 50 per cent saying it was an appropriate advertising venue, and 44 per cent calling it inappropriate.

The US networks will be devoting most of their coverage on September 11 to covering the first anniversary. ABC will set aside its normal programming for the whole day and evening and NBC News plans a prime-time special on September 10 and will have extended coverage of commemorations the following day. Many advertisers have decided that the date is best left out of their media schedule and programmes are expected to run with no ads and limited low-profile sponsorships.

The financial fall-out from this is that the television networks could stand to lose a collective $32m (&£20.6m) in prime-time advertising alone on September 11 and cable will be affected too. Fox Broadcasting and Fox News Channel have said they will not take any advertising for the full day, a $5m (&£3.2m) loss for them.

Many cable channels, including Viacom’s MTV and Hearst and Disney’s Lifetime, are undecided over whether to run ads, but do plan theme programming. A&E Television Networks’ A&E and History Channel will run special programming with ads. MSNBC is searching for several advertisers to underwrite large portions of the day with limited commercial breaks. Discovery Networks has commemorative programming planned for its channels and is still working out advertising plans, including two commercial-free programmes on the Discovery Channel.

Media buyers started asking the networks months ago what their plans were for the day’s programming. When they were told it would be devoted to the anniversary of the attacks, many advertisers simply backed out. It raises the question of whether this is the right move or simply cowardice on the part of the marketers. Is it really better to say or do nothing at all and just bury your head in the sand? Maybe Spirit is really doing the brave thing by doing something rather than nothing and risking the cynical comments.

September 11 2002 will be a solemn day across the US, which will reignite a host of emotions and memories. Any corporation that attempts to communicate with the public that day will need to be pretty confident that it is saying or doing the right thing. However, it seems unlikely that the right words even exist.

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business writer

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