Advertising against a tragic event is a delicate calculation for American companies. Do they acknowledge the occasion and invite accusations of being opportunistic? Do they stay silent and risk appearing out of touch or unpatriotic? What is the border between commemoration and commercialization?
On Saturday, during a break in an afternoon football game, Budweiser will mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a commercial showing a team of Clydesdale horses pulling a red Budweiser-branded wagon across the Brooklyn Bridge and down a cobblestone street of Lower Manhattan. In the final image, the horses, standing on the grass of Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., lower their heads before the city skyline, where the Tribute in Light installation is visible against the twilight sky.
The 60-second commercial, which appeared on YouTube on Friday, is an updated version of Budweiser’s “Respect” ad, which first ran during the 2002 Super Bowl, five months after the attacks. The company released that commercial again on the 10th anniversary, in 2011.
The new ad will appear during the CBS broadcast of the college football matchup between the Air Force Falcons and the Navy Midshipmen and once more 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 really pay the respect that those that were lost deserve,” said Daniel Blake, a vice president of marketing at Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev.
To make its first commercial referencing Sept. 11, shot soon after the attacks, Budweiser received special permission from Congress and Rudolph Giuliani, then the 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.
The new version closes with a message in white letters against a black background as a stirring melody plays: “Twenty years later, we’ll never forget.” The company’s logo then shows for seven seconds, along with onscreen mentions of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and the Never Forget Fund. There is no voice-over narration.
“We wanted to do it obviously in a very subtle way, but it’s important to make sure that people know where the spot is coming from and who’s creating the film itself,” Mr. Blake said.
Budweiser is one of many companies that have made or commissioned ads in commemoration of the tragic day in American history. In 2011, there was a well-received State Farm commercial, directed by Spike Lee, featuring children serenading appreciative New York firefighters with “Empire State of Mind.”
There have also been plenty of gaffes, like the Wisconsin golf course that offered special pricing tied to the date. AT&T deleted a Twitter post with an image of the Tribute in Light installation with the message “Never Forget” as part of a smartphone ad.
A Texas mattress store promoted a Twin Towers sale with a commercial featuring two stacks of mattresses that got knocked over. National headlines and widespread criticism caused the store to shut down. The parent company, Miracle Mattress, issued an apology denouncing the ad as “thoughtless and crude.”
Companies that try to address tragedy, hoping to tap into themes of togetherness and hope, run the risk of triggering feelings of rage and loss, said Cait Lamberton, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The Sept. 11 anniversary is especially tricky, because emotions have become complicated after years of war and trauma.
“It’s a little safer when it’s something more recent, because there’s a much better sense of what the unified narrative is,” Professor Lamberton said. “For this, the narrative is much more fragmented.”
“Brands that now fail to acknowledge massive shared tragedy run the risk of seeming blind or apathetic to the suffering of a large portion of the country,” Professor Lamberton said.
This year, as television networks and streaming platforms put out Sept. 11 anniversary specials, many viewers are complaining that the programs are cutting to commercials that are upsetting in context, such as a spot for the Sling TV streaming service that starts with a nervous-looking flight attendant asking if anyone on board knows how to fly an airplane.
The ad was pulled on Thursday, said Ted Wietecha, a spokesman for Dish Network, Sling TV’s parent company. The company apologized to viewers, he said in an email.
“The timing and placement of this particular ad should not have happened,” he said. “While we use keyword blocking on digital ad purchases, for TV and streaming, we have the capability to block ads from running on specific stations and times of day.”
MSNBC premiered the documentary film “Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11” without ads this week. A spokesman said in an email that “the importance of the story and content far outweighed any commercialization of this program,” adding that the network may consider selling ad space during repeat airings.