State Farm. They’ve got an Empire State of Mind.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably grateful that September 11th is behind us, for another 360 days. For another year, we can leave behind the corresponding barrage of corporate tributes reminding us of the tragedy—as if we would or could ever forget.

Taking a corporate stance on public issues and events will always be a difficult line for marketers to straddle. Audiences are fickle. Whether you’re being too intrusive, insensitive or outright exploitative, they will be quick to call you out. It can boil down to a case of “you’re damn if you do, and damned if you don’t.” However, when it comes to social issues, if you do choose to do—do it well.

Take two cases in point:

State Farm’s tribute to the heroes of 9/11 is a fine example of a good do. The moving collaboration with Spike Lee touches all the right spots: It features a cover of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” performed by school children of the New York City boroughs, woven seamlessly with New York images that are moving without being sentimental. The tribute showcases all things New York: real NY kids, real NY places, an anthemic, tough, and catchy NY-themed song by NY artists, and a respected NY film director. The imagery works because the kids are doing everyday New York things—disembarking from a massive, mustard-yellow school bus; pushing through subway turnstiles; riding the Staten Island Ferry, navigating traffic by bicycle; walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, both majestic and gritty, with the white, protective construction shrouds hanging off its harp-like skeleton; visiting Yankee Stadium and the Bronx; and last but not least, visiting firehouses to thank the heroes who worked there and died for their service and the brave men who still work there and save lives. Making the “Empire State of Mind (Part II)” song from the tribute available for purchased through iTunes with proceeds benefiting the National Fallen Fireman Foundation was another unexpected, good choice.

If the amount of buzz the film has gotten on Facebook and Twitter is any indication, State Farm’s whole campaign seems to have earned high marks from the public. The Illinois-based insurance company produced a tribute that not only inspired warm and fuzzy thoughts about a city and nation rebuilding after loss, but also about the State Farm brand and the company’s understanding of social responsibility. Part of the reason the branding is effective is that this humble and tasteful tribute feels earnest rather than self-congratulatory or canned. And except for the millisecond flash of the company logo at the very end of the segment, literally nothing indicates that State Farm sponsored the segment.

On the flip side, we have a tribute spot by Verizon, a New York-based company that should be subjected to a tongue lashing by Serena Williams (after she’s been called out for a fault or for letting a victory yelp slip out prematurely, of course).

Verizon’s tribute, a compilation of beauty shots of The Statue of Liberty and frolicking children, edited to Josh Groban’s and Charlotte Church’s “The Prayer,” inspired only one thing: tears. Of course it does. The vocals of Josh Groban and Charlotte Church (or Celine Dion, or Andrea Bocelli, for that matter) would make anyone gush like a baby on any given day. That’s the problem. Those tears? Generic tears. Not tears for 9/11. Not for New York. Not for our nation. Not for our fallen heroes. There’s nothing remotely New York about the song, and in combination with equally Hallmark-y sentimental imagery of the Statue of Liberty and nothing else, the segment comes across as heavy-handed and calculated, designed to reduce anyone to a blubbering mess for no particular reason. It feels like some guy in corporate was spending more time thinking about a New York “tribute” that would play well in Peoria than a genuine tribute that would play well in New York.

The whole thing is as short as the State Farm tribute, but the Verizon piece feels longer because it’s the opposite in tone and approach: It feels like an ad intended to make you cry and purchase your brand loyalty through sentiment. It’s shot in black-and-white, though it’s unclear what effect this is supposed to create—grit? elegance? seriousness? The images chosen feel similarly lazy and predictable. Shots of the Statue of Liberty from all angles, interspersed with shots that look like those stock images that come with the picture frames you buy at Target or Kohl’s (a baby’s hand, a parent’s hand, an infant’s wide eyes, kids of all colors smiling, making faces, and peering expectantly up at the regal Lady Liberty).

Consequently, after you’re done blowing your nose, the Verizon spot also leaves you with a big thought bubble over your head that reads: “why?” Did a board member with some free time, access to stock footage, and a fully loaded Mac volunteer to do it? Did a stock video house have a footage sale? Hmm.

The kicker: If memory serves me correctly, Verizon used “The Prayer” in its first 9/11 tribute back in 2002…So: not just tearjerker schmaltz but recycled tearjerker schmaltz to boot.

Thankfully, there was one good part to this otherwise bland and uninspired effort. The end, which came in the form of a dedication: “In tribute to those we lost.  In gratitude to those who served.” Nonetheless, I, along with a majority of folks, was disappointed with Verizon’s “lack of mind” and would have preferred if they had sat this one out.

Am I being too harsh? Watch the two videos back to back…. Harsh? I don’t think so.


Filed: branding, cause marketing, crisis management, crisis pr

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