Americans are touchy about 9/11, and for good reason. So, when the terrorist attack is used in something like a TV commercial, viewers aren’t apt to accept it en masse. In fact, widespread criticism, like that being faced by Colonial Williamsburg right now, should be expected.
Their Super Bowl ad, which ran only in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington on Sunday, ran a series of historical images to reflect on American history — including 9/11.
Viewers really didn’t mind that images of covered wagons, suffragettes, and the space shuttle launch were used to sell Colonial Williamsburg vacations. But the worst terrorist attack on American soil in our history is another story — many critics on Twitter and in the media pretty much agreed that 9/11 is off limits when it comes to advertising.
— The Virginian-Pilot (@PilotNews) February 7, 2016
— Esquire Magazine (@esquire) February 6, 2016
Colonial Williamsburg has downplayed the controversy, insisting that those against the Super Bowl ad are in the minority.
Here’s a breakdown of the controversy, according to the Washington Post and the Richmond Times Dispatch: to inspire viewers to reflect on American heritage, the Super Bowl ad recounts history in reverse order, including images of President Obama’s inauguration, World War II battles, settlers, civil rights marches, and 9/11.
The 9/11 footage used in the Super Bowl ad was also in reverse, depicting the damaged building reconstructing itself as a fireball is sucked back inside. Its appearance in the commercial was timed with a reference, by narrator Tom Brokaw, to the nation’s “heartbreaks,” according to USA Today.
“When you reflect upon our sacrifices, our breakthroughs and yes our heartbreaks… Where did our fight come from. Our strength. Our heart. Where did our spirit first take shape? It started here. Colonial Williamsburg.”
Many Super Bowl fans found the ad distasteful, but Colonial Williamsburg seems to be standing by the advertisement, noting that prior to its airing on Sunday, people had reacted to an extended online version of the ad with positive comments and thousands of social media likes.
— MPH (@PhillyPartTwo) February 8, 2016
"9/11 started with us" – Colonial Williamsburg
— Dylan Matthews (@dylanmatt) February 8, 2016
Using 9/11 for commercial purposes is as uncool as using Auschwitz. #colonialwilliamsburg
— Alex Polkhovsky (@polkhovsky) February 8, 2016
A Colonial Williamsburg spokesman acknowledged that “some of the images depicted in the ad are jarring,” but that the entire commercial had a message: “All that is past is prologue.”
“Our ad is meant to walk viewers backwards through time, challenging them to reflect on how our collective history and struggles shape who we are as Americans today. We cannot forget our sacrifices or our tragedies even as we celebrate our accomplishments. Colonial Williamsburg does not shy away from these difficult moments in our history because they have made us who we are just as surely as our many triumphs.”
Not everyone was convinced by this explanation. The Huffington Post –– which criticized Colonial Williamsburg for using 9/11 to advertise hotels, restaurants, and ghost tours — said the Super Bowl ad’s intended meaning doesn’t make sense as it applies to the terror attack.
“9/11 was used in context to signify a hardship Americans have overcome. The overall idea for the video seemed to posit that without Colonial Williamsburg, the featured moments in American history wouldn’t have happened,” the site wrote. “This works for raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. It kind of, sort of works for Barack Obama’s election. But saying we wouldn’t have had 9/11 without Colonial Williamsburg seems like a misguided moment for a Super Bowl commercial.”
Slate accused Colonial Williamsburg of wanting to dial back recent victories in the struggle for equality, writing: “Come to our lovely village, where you don’t have to worry about all that awful social progress!”
On a more practical level, the Super Bowl ad didn’t mention any reasons to visit Colonial Williamsburg — like its role as the capital of Virginia, or the site of Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William & Mary.
Clearly, the historical site was going for something a bit more symbolic and emotionally touching in Sunday’s commercial. And if you want to stir up people’s emotions, 9/11 is sure to do it.
“We are aware that including scenes from the World Trade Center attacks is powerful and subject to debate. But American history is full of tragedies as well as triumphs. The whole of our experience makes us who we are today. That’s the story we need to tell, whether it is about slavery or an attack upon our homeland. The real story.”
What do you think? Did the ad go too far?
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]