Image Source: Colonial Williamsburg via YouTube
Using images related to the deaths of 2,977 Americans to sell vacations is going to upset people. That was the reaction to a Super Bowl advertisement the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ran in New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Narrated by Tom Brokaw, it shows footage of influential moments in American history in reverse, including “a thought-provoking depiction of the World Trade Center rising from the ashes of Ground Zero,” according to a recent news release.
“The ads are meant to show that the America we know was not inevitable. It took courage. It took leadership. It took pain and sacrifice,” explained President and CEO, Mitchell Reiss. “These ads take you backwards, down the many roads and tributaries of America to their original source: the revolutionary issues, debates, acts, and peoples that defined 18th-century Williamsburg.”
For many though, the September 11 terrorist attacks are still deeply personal. I drove by the Pentagon that morning roughly 30 minutes prior to American Airlines Flight 77 plowing into the west side of the building, murdering 184. Growing up in a northern New Jersey commuter town, many people I know lost family and friends in the attacks or witnessed them firsthand.
While Colonial Williamsburg says it was sparking debate about the events that lead to founding our nation, they sparked anger and ridicule instead:
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) February 9, 2016
“Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg. That’s where we churn butter. And that’s our edit bay where we play the towers falling in reverse.”
— taran killam (@TaranKillam) February 8, 2016
Colonial Williamsburg doubled down to justify its ad. “We understand and respect that some of the images depicted in the ad are jarring. However, the small data point of people who objected to some of the imagery in the ad does not represent the total viewership,” spokesperson Jo Straw said in a statement. Lip service contrition followed by calling those personally affected by 9/11 a “small data point” is not one of the 3 Golden Rules of Crisis Communication.
Could it be Colonial Williamsburg meant to crelate waves given the self-description of The Firehouse Agency which produced the ad? “Aggressive growth plans…don’t scare us. We’re strategic thinkers and creative problem solvers who love a challenge. Which is good, because running from trouble isn’t really an option for a place called Firehouse.”
Controversial ads to create debate are nothing new. The United Nations Mine Action Service ad depicting children in suburban America blown up by land mines never aired, but garnered extensive coverage. Struggling with falling attendance, layoffs and reorganization following 9/11 and the recession, Colonial Williamsburg needs the attention. Since bringing on Reiss as President and CEO, they have staged stunts ranging from zombies and trick or treating in the historic area to introducing “Liberty” the dog as the foundation’s first mascot. Given the high cost of Super Bowl ads, running a controversial ad in three markets representing their “strongest visitor markets” while getting Brokaw to donate his services would allow them to maximize coverage in key markets while sparking a nationwide discussion.
This tactic requires fortitude however. Despite Firehouse’s mantra, Colonial Williamsburg ran from trouble by making the video private on YouTube, forgetting Mr. Universe‘s assertion that “You can’t stop the signal Mal.”
Question: Was this ad a calculated controversy for conversation, provocation for profit, or underestimating audience?