Ad Report Card: Tragedy, Ads, and Opportunism

Taste is often a problem for advertisers, and that’s particularly true in moments of tragedy and national distress. There was much less broadcast advertising last week than there typically is, but other forms of marketing did continue—raising, in a few cases, questions about taste, opportunism, and so on.

Online marketing, from pop-up and -under ads to e-mail-based campaigns, didn’t disappear the way TV spots did on some networks. A reader forwarded me a couple of ad e-mails he found questionable. One came from “Your Friends at Net2Phone,” and began, “In this national crisis, we at Net2Phone endorse the life-saving work of The American Red Cross,” and gave a Red Cross donation address. Another came from, and basically consisted of a picture of a flag with the logos of various charitable organizations and a list of related links.

Is this little more than shameless opportunism? And even if it isn’t, is it at all effective? I think you could argue the first question either way. No one is really hurt by such messages, but then again it’s hard to take seriously the notion that these advertisers are performing much of a service, considering how widely disseminated Red Cross and other information has been. As to whether it’s effective, I tend to think not. Few people are going to have newly warm feelings about their “friends” at Net2Phone as a result of receiving this particular bit of spam, but it’s likely that at least some number will find it annoying and maybe even crass.

Meanwhile, a Slate colleague tells me about developments with the infamous “pop-under” ads by the maker of tiny spy cameras (see this earlier item if you’re not sure what I’m talking about). On Tuesday, apparently, the advertiser announced (in ads) that in honor of the victims of that day’s tragedy, it was suspending its spots (or words to that effect) and added a little product info along with a Red Cross pitch. A subsequent ad, my colleague notes, could be viewed as making a subtle play to consumer concerns about feeling “safe and secure.” I’m not sure how one might defend such gambits. Then again, I find the product distasteful to begin with.

Finally, the business pages in recent days have included a growing number of prominent ads from financial institutions. Most are similar, text-only ads in the form of an open letter, expressing condolences to the families of victims, colleagues, and others. In some cases, donations are mentioned. Again: Opportunism? A waste of money that could better have been spent helping those victims?

I think here it’s reasonable to keep in mind that the financial community has, for obvious reasons, felt the force of this tragedy rather keenly. The loss of life has hit there much closer to home than it has for, say, the sellers of cooking products and services. Some kind of public expression of grief is easy to understand.

Where some of these ads might veer into questionable territory is in their language reassuring customers. “Please be assured that we at American Express Financial Advisors are absolutely committed to safeguarding the investments you entrusted with us. We have over 100 years of experience,” etc. Hmmm. Were a lot of people really concerned about their Amex accounts? Even if they were, is it a good idea to tack reassurances to those folks onto a message of condolence? The Oppenheimer Funds have an ad out today that similarly throws in a mention of “detailed business continuity plans.” Goldman Sachs, among others, stuck with a more general expression of “sorrow” and “determination.”

Of course, you could argue that even the most jarringly blunt reassurances about the strength of this or that firm’s underlying business prospects is perfectly appropriate at this particular moment: As not a few people have noted, issues of financial stability and patriotism are curiously intertwined today.