Are Ads Spawned by Hugo, Earthquake Tasteful?

Several days after Hurricane Hugo ripped through Charleston, AT&T; rushed a production crew there to film a promotional video. Originally, the video was supposed to be seen only by AT&T; employees--as a way to show team spirit during a crisis.

But the film footage of the devastation aftermath was so graphic, and in the case of one misty-eyed AT&T; supervisor, so heart tugging, that the company took a different path. It decided to wrap the timely film footage into its national ad campaign about the reliability of the phone company in emergencies.

“It was that once-in-a-lifetime vehicle,” said Burke Stinson, media relations manager at AT&T; in Basking Ridge, N.J. “We had a major show coming up in roughly the same time frame of a major tragedy.”


AT&T; also sent a film crew to the Bay Area after the earthquake earlier this month. After all, AT&T; knew that it had gobs of ad time to fill during Sunday night’s airing of “The Final Days” on ABC.

Allstate, too, had film crews in Charleston and the Bay Area. Allstate’s ads from Charleston actually show its agents handing checks to several homeowners who filed claims. The insurer says it could have its earthquake commercial on the air next week.

But some advertising experts wonder if all this is a bit too ghoulish. For the sake of selling some property insurance or telephone systems, are some advertisers insensitive to people still suffering in the aftermath of these disasters?

“From a marketing standpoint, a great case can be made that the timing of these ads is perfect,” said Stan Freberg, a Los Angeles advertising consultant and president of Stan Freberg Ltd. “But from a standpoint of taste, I think it’s terrible for any company to seize upon a disaster to toot its own horn.”

Others strongly disagree. “It’s very appropriate for a company to sometimes remind people, ‘Hey, we told you we’d do this, and guess what--we did,’ ” said Gene Cameron, president of the Los Angeles office of BBDO Worldwide. “Of course, all this has to be done in good taste.”

This sort of “disaster aftermath” advertising can directly result in new business, said John Czepiel, professor of marketing at New York University. “You can bet there are people who see those Allstate ads and wonder what their insurance companies would do,” Czepiel said. “For that matter, some people have to be asking themselves: Why isn’t my insurance company running ads like these?”

Executives from Allstate and AT&T; insist that they’re only letting people know about their excellent services during times of crisis--and are not trying to take advantage of the situations.

“We’re showing people that we’ve perfected how to deal with catastrophes,” said John Flieder, vice president of product advertising at Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co., which eventually expects to pay more than $250 million in claims related to Hurricane Hugo. “When you have a disaster that will be on people’s minds for a long time, that’s worth talking about.”

The Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett has made similar “disaster” commercials for Allstate for more than 20 years. In fact, some stand-up comedians have even been known to parody these ads in their skits. “If Saturday Night Live wants to make a parody ad of what we do, that’s fine with me,” Flieder said. “Just so they spell our name right.”

Of course, Fred Ayoub probably wouldn’t find a parody ad very funny. After all, Ayoub’s home in North Charleston, S.C., was virtually demolished when a 300-foot radio tower came crashing through it during the hurricane. The 36-year-old Ayoub--standing among the ruins of his home--is featured in a recent Allstate commercial.

“As long as what they say is true, I don’t see anything wrong with these kinds of ads,” said Ayoub, in an interview. He said Allstate has paid him three installments of the $58,000 he will eventually receive to completely rebuild his home.

In the commercial, Ayoub states just how pleased he is with Allstate’s service. “They didn’t pressure me or put any words into my mouth,” said Ayoub. “The whole thing took me by surprise. No one even told me a commercial crew was going to come by the house.”

But Freberg, the consultant, said the Allstate ad is terribly offensive. “It makes me think that they have a special division that waits around for disasters to happen,” said Freberg. “I suppose they have a vice president of earthquakes and another vice president of hurricanes.”

The three-minute “disaster” ad that AT&T; aired Sunday night--featuring scenes from the recent hurricane and earthquake--was originally supposed to be just about Hurricane Hugo. “We were looking for something that would show our responsiveness as a corporation,” said Stinson, of the commercial that was created by the agency NW Ayer. Then, days after the Hugo films were completed, the Bay Area earthquake occurred.

“The earthquake was even a greater test for AT&T;,” said Stinson. “In the ad, we’re trying to politely blow our own horn. We’re showing that by being fast afoot in a tragedy, we can also be speedy during a communications problem that is not caused by an act of God.”

What about those people in Charleston and the Bay Area who, after the separate tragedies, have complained about going for days without AT&T; long-distance service? “There might be people who have those complaints,” said Stinson. “But on the whole, the record we exhibited with our fast response was exemplary.”

AT&T; Sponsorship of ‘Final Days’ Zapped

AT&T; says there will be no Watergate-style cover-up over the flak that it receives for sponsoring ABC’s Sunday night telecast about Richard Nixon’s last days in office--"The Final Days.” “Call volumes to our customer service centers were up 15% to 20% on Monday,” said Burke Stinson, media relations manager at AT&T.; On the East Coast, alone, more than 1,000 calls were received by AT&T; officials--about 50% of them from unhappy customers. Stinson said that many customers said they would switch to competing long-distance carriers--just as an angry Nixon, himself, switched to MCI in September.

“A number of people who called said they didn’t even watch the show,” Stinson said. “They said they had read about it over the weekend and didn’t want to see it.”

Lottery Looking for New Ad Shop

Don’t make any bets yet, but the California State Lottery--one of the biggest advertisers on the West Coast--is seriously looking at changing agencies.

The lottery’s annual ad budget is $60 million--and lottery officials are reviewing agencies. A decision is expected by early December.

Last week, lottery officials quietly named four finalists for the lucrative ad business--including incumbent Daily & Associates. Also in the running are BBDO Los Angeles, Chiat/Day/Mojo and the San Francisco office of J. Walter Thompson.

Japanese auto makers aside, the lottery is among the most sought-after ad accounts on the West Coast. Explained Gene Cameron, president of BBDO Los Angeles, “Everything else that big has four wheels on it.”

Coen Teams With 2 Under a New Name

Once again, a “new” advertising agency has arrived on the Los Angeles scene.

Actually, Coen, Kalis & Moiselle isn’t entirely new. It was formerly Raymond Coen & Associates, an agency that may be best known locally for its ads for Oh Boy! Frozen Foods. Now, Coen has taken on two partners and hopes to expand his business well beyond its current annual billings of $8 million.

“The Los Angeles advertising jungle isn’t being enlarged,” said Coen, “it’s just being improved.”

And so is Coen’s agency. Joining him as partners are Murray Kalis, who was formerly creative director and executive vice president at HDM/LA, and Ed Moiselle, whose agency, Seidman and Moiselle, was acquired by Admarketing. At HDM, Kalis helped create those familiar ads for Nissin brand noodles, including the spot for Hardy Cup O’ Noodles that features an Oliver Twist-like character who asks for more noodles.

“We’re already pitching against the big boys,” said Coen, whose agency this week will go up against J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather for a local packaged goods advertiser. Coen said his agency will specialize in consumer retail businesses with annual ad budgets of $1 million to $5 million.

“There is a trend among advertisers to not necessarily go with the big-name agencies,” Coen said. “Instead, they’re going with agencies that can generate sales.”

Latino Ad Agency Links Up With HDM

What is the best way for a Latino advertising agency to grow?

Some have merged with big agencies and entirely lost their identities. But recently the North Hollywood ad shop Castellanos Latina Advertising announced an unusual “affiliation agreement” with HDM Worldwide--and will remain independent.

“We have been searching for a partner whose spirit and philosophy matches our own,” said Julio J. Castellanos Sr., president of the agency.

Under the agreement, HDM will introduce Castellanos to many of its big clients, such as Westin Hotels, Peugeot and Nintendo. If--and when--Castellanos creates any Spanish-language ads for HDM clients, HDM will receive an undisclosed “cut” of those billings, said Julio J. Castellanos Jr., senior vice president of the 3-year-old agency.

“We have no intention or inclination to sell the majority of our company,” said Castellanos Jr., whose agency creates Spanish-language ads for the Broadway and Pic N Save. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

As a result of this agreement, Castellanos Jr. said his agency--which has annual billings of about $7 million--expects to pick up $5 million in new business over the next year. “This is a great way of opening doors with new clients.”