Ad Report Card

The Oscar Ads

How to pitch your product during a war.

Around midday on Sunday, Tom Brokaw wrapped up NBC’s morning coverage of the war in Iraq and told viewers that we’d be bound for the halcyon world of arena footballafter “these messages.” The war news had been particularly harrowing, with reports of American casualties, prisoners taken, executions. The buffer between this and the gridiron was a spot for a special episode of Fear Factor, the show built around the idea of competitive worm-eating by sexy people. From Brokaw’s sober visage we cut to chicks in bikinis performing risky stunts. “One big night of Fear!” the announcer shouted.

Little bulletins like this, blasted from the front lines of the culture of constant promotion, can obviously be a problem in serious times. All week, marketers had mulled how, or whether, to pitch their products during wartime, but the biggest question was how to handle the Academy Awards ceremony—after the Super Bowl, it is the biggest night in advertising. Companies like Pepsi and American Express had major spots at the ready, but gauging the right tone became infinitely more complex.

Word of limited ad retrenchments across various print and broadcast media started coming in even before the “target of opportunity” bombing Wednesday night. DeBeers pulled a print ad touting its diamonds as “the mother of all Mother’s Day gifts.” AT&T put on hiatus a TV spot in which one of its calling plans is promoted as a great medium for discussing “issues” such as cloning, global warming, affirmative action, and war. (Why it’s better than another calling plan, or a walkie-talkie, or face-to-face communication is not clear.) Procter & Gamble said it would pull all ads during the first 48 hours of the war. American Express said it would pull its ads for at least two to three days; MasterCard said it will hold off for a week.

Meanwhile, the marketing consultancy Yankelovich Inc. put out a paper arguing against such squeamishness. “With the start of the war,” the firm argued, “good marketing is more important than ever. No victory will be complete if it does not lead to a stronger nation and a more secure world, both of which depend on a vigorous, vibrant American economy. Marketing is the muscle that powers the economy.”

On the other hand, the ad agency J. Walter Thompson has commissioned a study producing an “Anxiety Index,” which “offers irrefutable evidence that marketers today face an increasingly fearful audience.” According to the index, if anxiety normalcy = 100, then as of mid-February, we stand at a sweaty and teeth-chattering 233. Such was the state of things as the Hollywood dream machine’s 75th annual self-congratulation ceremony began while nightmares played out on the news channels, leaving sponsors with a handful of Oscar ad options.

Pull out: No one seems to have taken this tack. ABC had sold out its Academy Award ad slots long before bombs started falling on Baghdad, with average prices clocking in at around $1.3 million or more per 30 seconds, according to the Wall Street Journal. Even Amex and MasterCard made exceptions to their ad pullbacks. AOL reportedly stripped ads off its home page but used its time during the Oscars.

Be patriotic: Nobody really did this, either. But again, the actual combat started so recently it would have been surprising if any advertiser had revamped its planned spot on such short notice. And it’s not clear whether it would have been a good idea anyway. One ad firm says that its telephone poll found that 56 percent of Americans feel positive about patriotic ad messages. Another said its own polling had found that 51 percent of Americans thought that advertisers were exploiting patriotism not long after Sept. 11.

Be escapist: Pepsi’s new spot was pure spectacle: Beyoncé Knowles made her pop-endorser debut, mewling a Pepsi jingle to the tune of “Carmen” against a splashy backdrop in a spot directed by Spike Lee. (See it on this Pepsi site.) The risk: A garish celebration might seem out of place if Peter Jennings butted in to say something depressing about agonizing deaths on the other side of the planet. But as it happens, the ad worked perfectly well, in large part because spectacle is exactly what the audience tuned in to see.

Be vaguely inspirational: By far the strangest ad of the night was a spot for Charles Schwab, the discount broker. Shot in black and white, it showed people filing out of Wall Street buildings, forming a huge crowd, and marching away from lower Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge as the announcer talked about Schwab having sparked a “revolution.” Last time we saw people streaming out of downtown on foot was, of course, Sept. 11. To echo that image, at any time, is bizarre in the extreme.

Be warm: Lots of advertisers have been more subdued in the year and a half since 9/11, so it’s no surprise there was plenty of warmth in evidence. I guess warmth is safer than patriotism—and it’s probably the most effective strategy, so expect to see more of it. J.C. Penney’s ads went this way, and so did the MasterCard spot: Once again keying on the “priceless” theme, this particular spot praised “the comforts of home”—probably the perfect theme for addressing an overseas war without actually addressing it.

Be funny: Humor can also be effective, but it can be risky, too, again depending on breaking news or on the tone that the actual ceremony took. It turned out that award recipients were mostly on good behavior, and most did not acknowledge the outside world in a provocative way. The exceptions were Michael Moore, with an incendiary rant that drew some applause and some booing, and best-actor Adrien Brody, with a more emotional acknowledgement of the dehumanizing horrors of war that brought the glitterati to their feet.

Other than that, the show was a safe place for jokes—and, after all, one of the “lessons” that J. Walter Thompson advances from its anxiety index study is that “consumers want humor,” which humanizes the sales pitch, so long as it isn’t “hurtful.” Yahoo! had a pretty good ad for its new personals service, showing potential dates of great variety practicing their first hellos. Bud Light walked closer to the edge in a spot that ended with a poodle being ejected through the sunroof of a limo.

But an AOL commercial showing a satisfied Sharon Stonelolling in bed after an “amazing experience”—which apparently she had with the AOL icon—seemed off-key. And Washington Mutual hit all the wrong notes with a couple of Jackass-esque ads. In one, a dirt-biker flies off a cliff and smashes into the rocks below. In another, a guy endures a bad drill job by his dentist, then gets hit in the crotch with a bowling ball. What does this have to do with Washington Mutual’s services? Actually, what are Washington Mutual’s services? These spots were pointless in a way that transcended current events.

Which brings up another point that came out in the small blizzard of phone polls and studies that marketers have conducted to figure out how to proceed: Apparently many of us see the return to familiar advertising patterns as a sign that life is getting back to “normal.” So, I suppose Oscar’s sponsors did their part. They were so normal, in fact, that it was almost scary.


Update: A couple of weeks ago, Ad Report Card looked at a Nike ad that included some controversial snarling dog imagery. The company has since announced  that it has stopped running the ad, as of March 17.