NEW YORK >> For years, Madison Avenue steered clear of events that marked the anniversary of 9/11, anxious that any participation could be perceived as exploitive.
As the 10th anniversary nears, however, marketers, media companies and advertising agencies are changing course, involving themselves with sponsorships, screenings, fundraisers, programming and other highly visible activities.
Those taking part include blue-chip names like American Express, AT&T, Best Buy, CBS, Chrysler, Clear Channel, Conde Nast, Discovery Communications, General Motors, Google, Home Depot, National Geographic, Time Warner, Verizon and The New York Times, which is publishing a commemorative section.
They say they are being particularly careful to be conscious of the meaning of Sept. 11, 2001, and avoid anything that could be deemed tasteless or crass.
But experts wonder whether the public will be able to draw a firm line between a television special and a 9/11 memorial wine; between commemorative publications and replicas of the Twin Towers that light up in red, white and blue; between advertisements asking for donations and ads for a health club offering first responders discount rates that expire Sept. 11.
“We’ve been saying to people, there’s probably no right way to do this,” said J. Walker Smith, executive chairman at the Futures Company consultancy, which plans to release this month a report on public attitudes toward 9/11.
“If I were a marketer, I would let the moment pass,” Smith said. “Anything you do could be seen as self-serving or disrespectful.”
Marian Salzman, an author and trend-watcher who is the chief executive at Euro RSCG Worldwide public relations, described herself as “extremely conflicted” on the subject.
“On one level, you want to convey a sense of empathy and sympathy and patriotism,” Salzman said. “On another level, there’s a belief that every milestone in American history has been turned into a marketing opportunity.
“My advice would be to go dark,” she added. “There’s no place for brands to live.”
Still, some are trying. For instance, Lieb Family Cellars, a Long Island winery, is selling 9/11 Memorial commemorative merlot and chardonnay, promising to donate up to 10 percent of the proceeds to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
And the New York Sports Club chain of health clubs made the discount offer last month in ads aimed at firefighters, police officers, members of the military and emergency medical workers. The regular rate, $99 a month, was reduced to $20.
Other marketing, media and agency executives acknowledge a need to tread lightly in their plans for Sept. 11, 2011.
“This is a subject none of us wants to think of as commercial,” said Pamela Maffei McCarthy, deputy editor of The New Yorker, part of Conde Nast, which is publishing an e-book, “After 9/11,” collecting the magazine’s coverage of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.
The effort that media outlets are embracing most enthusiastically is a public-service ad campaign for the national memorial, which is being coordinated by the Advertising Council. The television, radio, print, outdoor and online ads will encourage visits and donations to the memorial by exhorting Americans to “honor, remember and reunite.”
Although it is likely that “we’ll all be saturated with editorial content” about Sept. 11, that should not diminish the potential power of the campaign, said Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive of the council.
“Let’s see if we can use this as an opportunity to recapture some of that unity we had after 9/11,” Conlon said.
Joe Daniels, president of the memorial, said he was “not overly worried” that the public would look upon all the coming marketing and media activity as inappropriate.
“The vast majority of people involved are trying to do the right thing,” Daniels said, adding that the campaign for the memorial ought to resonate because it uses “authentic voices of people connected to the events to speak to the fact that 9/11 touched all of us.”
At least two dozen media companies have agreed to run the campaign for the memorial at no charge. Among them is Clear Channel Communications, which is carrying radio, outdoor and digital elements of the campaign.
“Being a native New Yorker and someone who was downtown on Sept. 11, 2001, this was just a natural call to action,” said Harry Coghlan, president and general manager of the Clear Channel Outdoor New York division.
The campaign has a “simple, touching, appropriate tone,” he added, and is “the right message we want to communicate” at this delicate time.
But will everything being done by those involved in commemorating the 10th anniversary be enough offset the inevitable excesses? Salzman of Euro RSCG said she was skeptical.
“I’m not sure people feel all that receptive,” she said. “Every word is a land mine.
“The real problem,” she added, is that “we’re all broke, we’re all tired and we’re all depressed, even without a commemorative milestone that isn’t going to be a happy one.”