Merchants fear ‘exploiting’ 9/11

10 years later, firms seek to mark anniversary in ‘thoughtful way’

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The business of marketing is tricky around the anniversary of Sept. 11, and this year it was particularly so, as the nation marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The quandary about whether advertisers should be a part of the commemoration — and, if so, to what extent — persists.

“Companies and brands are right to be concerned about being perceived as exploiting a searing national tragedy for corporate gain,” Craig Bida, executive vice president at Cone, a marketing and branding company, wrote in a blog post. “But given the fact that a decade has passed … we are at a point where companies can, and should, market around 9/11 — provided they go about it in a principled and thoughtful way.”

Some companies see it as a marketing opportunity to help the country remember those who lost their lives that day.

Many, such AT&T, encourage employees to volunteer. Others sell products to commemorate Sept. 11. Lieb Cellars is selling several wines made from grapes from near ground zero. Most of the proceeds will be donated to charity.

AmericanFlags.com, a New York company that was founded weeks after the terrorist attacks, is giving away 1 million free American flags between Thursday and Sunday. They hope it will spark a sense of renewed patriotism.

“Immediately following 9/11, flags were everywhere,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the website. “You looked at every home, every school, every business, and there was an American flag. Now, I look around, and most of those are gone.”

Mr. Reynolds sees this as a way to tie his business to his patriotic duty. He’s encouraging more people to raise American flags, knowing that many of them will come back to him for future flags.

“Look, the American spirit was founded on capitalism,” he said. “I’ve built a pretty strong business around the American flag. The fact that you can make money and do the right thing at the same time is a pretty nice way to live life.

“I think that selling the American flag is more good than just selling general products.”

The Potomac Mills shopping center in Prince William County in the D.C. suburbs is taking a different business approach when it comes to flag-flying. The mall plans to give away hundreds of mini-American flags but isn’t hoping for more customers in return.

“It’s not really meant to bring more people to the mall,” said Caroline Green, marketing director at the mall. “That’s not really our goal. It’s a day of remembrance. And it didn’t seem to us like it should be a day where we’re doing some sort of wild promotion.”

Whether or not companies try to make money off of Sept. 11, they shouldn’t ignore the issue. Mr. Bida said that’s “playing it way too safe.”

Ms. Green agreed.

“Especially given our proximity to the Pentagon, it would almost be weird to not acknowledge it,” she said.

The bottom line, some say, is that companies need to make an honest attempt to remember those who were lost without letting greed get in the way.

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