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War poses patriotic quandary



Published: Fri, April 4, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Businesses owners question how they should use patriotism in ads.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Cindi Runowski is faced with a quandary: Her small shop in Missouri's Ozarks is stocked with patriotic merchandise that's not selling. She'd like to advertise, but doesn't want to seem as if she's trying to profit off the war in Iraq.

"I don't really want to push it," said Runowski, who lost a brother in Vietnam and has a daughter in the Army Reserves at Fort Bragg, N.C. "It bothers my conscience to try to make a buck when young men are dying overseas."

Many business owners like Runowski are questioning to what extent, if any, they should use patriotism as they try to bring in sales, or how much support they should show for U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq. They're worried about appearing disingenuous and alienating rather than attracting customers.

"There appears to be genuine angst as people wrestle with this issue," said Hoag Levins, editor of Advertising Age magazine's Web site, AdAge.com. "It's a rare time of thoughtful debate in this industry, which normally is focused on nothing but money.

"I think there's actually a watershed event happening."

Re-evaluating

Levins and other observers say many marketers are re-evaluating the content and tone of their wartime advertising. Those who have gone with patriotic themes are doing so more softly than they did in the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"After Sept. 11, everyone was using flags [in marketing]. This time, I don't see it so blatantly," Levins said. "It's the beginning of a balancing act that's going to get increasingly tricky" for advertisers as the war continues.

Not lost on marketers, some observers say, is the consumer recoil over some ads that were perceived as profiteering from the Sept. 11 attacks. An example: Some auto dealers who hawked zero-percent financing as ultra-American, saying car sales would help the grieving nation's economy.

Many companies are scrutinizing their ad copy. Some aren't advertising at all, while others are screening out images that might appear inappropriate.

"Everyone is applying a sense of taste and propriety, trying to get this right," Levins said.

Being sensitive

In indefinitely suspending newspaper ads in its three-state territory, Raleigh-based First Citizens Bank decided "people wanted to focus on news about the war," spokeswoman Barbara Thompson said.

"We wanted to be sensitive to their feelings about what's happening in the world," Thompson said as the bank, with 341 branches in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, evaluates weekly when to revive its newspaper marketing.

C. Britt Beemer of America's Research Group said he has advised retail clients to tastefully support U.S. troops overseas.

"Americans want to buy products from community leaders, and one way to display that at war is to support the men and women in the field," said Beemer, whose South Carolina-based firm polls as many as 15,000 consumers a week.




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