By David H. Martin

The Earth-shattering events of Sept. 11 seem to have generated a continuous title wave of patriotism in the United States, perhaps not seen since World War II. Homes and autos are still emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes in the forms of flags and decals. Red-white-and-blue shirts and jackets informally complement colorful “flag” lapel pins for business attire. Our home is proudly part of this display and I hope yours is, too.

All well and fine, but some businesses cross the line. I’m talking about the line between appropriate patriotic display of our nation’s colors in time of war — and crass commercialization of the American flag by calculating or just plain insensitive companies using every angle to stimulate sales and customer loyalty in these difficult economic times.

In the case of businesses, it’s not a question of who displays the flag, or where or when. It is a question of how.

Keep the flag away from company logos
The display of patriotism is essentially an individual act. There are some great ways for companies to participate, but tying the company logo to the American flag is not one of them.

One company that crossed the line is the Ford Motor Company, which recently opened a 30-second TV commercial, on a promotional “sales event” theme, with a full-screen close-up of a waving U.S. flag. What’s wrong with that? Only that the fluttering flag soon dissolves into a Ford sales message and logo. It’s not an appropriate use of our nation’s image, if the sole purpose is to catch your eye for a commercial sales message. Ford isn’t alone in this indiscretion nor is it the most blatant in its sales pitch. Still, if this isn’t an offensive use of our flag, it’s certainly an inappropriate use to millions of viewers. Why risk offending potential customers?

Last November, I attended a national trade show (not water-related) where a leading manufacturer and exhibitor chose to give away handsome lapel pins to attendees.

Nothing unusual about that. But the custom pin, of unusual quality, displayed the company logo flanked by two American flags. Maybe this company thought people who see their pin on a lapel will get the message that this company (not an American-based firm, by the way) is twice as patriotic as their competitors! I think many who were handed this pin will never wear it because of the blatant commercial tie-in. What do you think?

Fundraising: tread lightly
Can corporate patriotism backfire? Analysts warn that while consumers are supportive of fundraising for relief efforts, companies must be careful how they solicit support and how they advertise their involvement, according to a recently released poll. The telephone poll, conducted by a philanthropy consulting firm, revealed that most Americans want companies to provide some level of support for the relief efforts benefiting the families of terrorists attacks, but certain types of support are more welcome than others.

For example, the poll found that 74 percent of Americans feel it’s appropriate for companies to “hold fundraising events to support victims.” More than 60 percent feel it’s appropriate to “tie a percentage of the proceeds (sale price) of a product or service to support victims.”

To donate or not
Less consumer support was expressed, however, for businesses that “ask employees to donate to a fund that supports victims,” that “asks consumers to donate at the point of purchase” or that “advertise what they are doing to support victims.” Only half of polled Americans supported these actions.

Picking the wrong charity could generate ill will. Thousands of businesses rallied behind the American Red Cross Liberty Fund, created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The fund quickly raised $550 million, pledged directly to disaster relief. When the organization later announced that $250 million would be diverted to their “general fund,” critics were quick to point out that donors contributed as generously as they did because they thought their money would be channeled quickly and directly to the victims and families of the attacks.

According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, all worthy charities must meet these standards:

  • Ensure that all solicitation materials are accurate and correctly reflect their organization’s mission and use of solicited funds,
  • Make sure that contributions are used in accordance with donors’ intentions,
  • Ensure proper reports on the use and management of funds, and
  • Obtain explicit consent from the donor before altering the conditions of a gift.

Profiting vs. profiteering
There is no guilt in profiting from selling merchandise that’s suddenly more in demand when a war breaks out. That includes flags, gas masks and water purifiers. Many companies will profit from the unspeakable acts of Sept. 11. And what’s wrong with that? If we begin to feel guilty for our capacity to ethically profit, we will be giving in to the terrorists who despise our free enterprise system. Besides, our wartime government needs your taxes.

Profiteering, on the other hand, is the act of charging exorbitant prices to capitalize unreasonably on a shortage. It’s never excusable.

American businesses should look at this war as a marketing condition and begin to do business accordingly. While the tone of your advertising will certainly change to reflect the national mood, the objective remains the same: Get people to buy stuff.

If people want drinking water systems that control bacteria and viruses as well as chemical contaminants — make them and sell them. And if you choose to donate a percentage of your profits to relief-providing charities, more power to you!

The best way for marketers to answer the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 is by doing what they do best. That is, driving what’s still the most vibrant and free economy in the world.

Think hard before you “wallpaper” your ads and promotion materials with the image of the American flag. Be dignified in your marketing approaches to support terrorist relief efforts, and thoughtful in selecting an appropriate local or national charity. Don’t be afraid to market products that legitimately appeal to “true peace of mind” during the War on Terror. As always, avoid using “scare tactics” in ads and sales presentations.

About the author
David H. Martin is president of Lenzi Martin Marketing, of Oak Park, Ill., a firm specializing in water improvement and environmental marketing that integrates old and new media. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404, e-mail: [email protected]
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