Ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the world of advertising has taken on a walking-on-eggshells tenor.

With consumers worried, how do companies come up with a tasteful ad campaign that doesn't sound too harsh, too insensitive or too greedy?

While some advertisers have opted to pull their ads while they figure out the country's mood, others are retooling commercials to be more patriotic, heartfelt and sentimental.

One company that didn't have to change a thing: Walt Disney Co.

Long before the terrorist attacks, Burbank-based Disney had been working on a $20 million branding campaign that was meant to be subtle and humorous, yet pluck at viewers' heartstrings.

Little did anyone know that the world would be a different place by the time the campaign aired.

"The idea was basically to communicate the timelessness and universal theme of the Disney brand in an engaging way," said Michael Mendenhall, president of marketing and synergies for Walt Disney Studios. "What we ended up doing worked out perfectly for right now."

What the company developed for its "Magic Happens" campaign are three 90-second spots that began airing on Disney-owned media, including ABC-TV, in early October. The ads are also running as trailers on all Disney videos and DVDs and at its resort hotels.

The ads, directed by industry veteran Joe Pytka of Venice, are vignettes about how Disney plays a central role in family life.

One of the spots features a boy questioning his dad about a business trip. When the boy discovers his father will be traveling alone, he secretly slips his Winnie the Pooh stuffed bear into his father's suitcase. The father discovers the bear when unpacking in his hotel room.

In another spot, a wife lying in bed with her husband complains that he never talks to her "in that special voice" he used when they were first married. After much urging, the husband nuzzles up to his wife and breaks into a Donald Duck imitation.

Unlike past Disney ads, the current campaign is not overtly directed at selling toys, theme parks or movies. It is aimed at building Disney's feel-good brand.

"The research we did showing spending time with people we care about and love couldn't be more important after Sept. 11," said Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA, which has been creating ads for Disney since 1994. "Disney is one of the few brands that bonds the generations together."

New sensitivity

"There is a new level of sensitivity out there," said Hobart Birmingham, association director of the Advertising Club of Los Angeles. "The creative directors at advertising agencies have to be aware that clients don't want their products or campaigns to be offensive."

As a result, a flurry of patriotic ads has been unleashed, the likes of which have not been seen since World War II.

United Airlines is airing testimonials from its pilots, flight attendants and ground crew expressing their pride and confidence in the company. Nary a word is mentioned about reduced airfares, stepped-up security, or customer service.

Meanwhile, long-running campaigns with patriotic themes have a new ring to them. General Motors Corp. wants to "Keep America Rolling" more than ever, and Merrill Lynch is fervently "Bullish on America."

But how effective are warm-and-fuzzy ads and how long will they air?

"Advertisers right now are playing a wait-and-see game and being very short term about their advertising decisions," said Jack Myers, editor of The Myers Report, an industry newsletter that tracks the media. "By definition, Disney is warm and fuzzy. It is good to be warm and fuzzy. But the danger is that it might be seen as being reactive to the situation and not proactive. It won't necessarily bring visitors into a store or to a place. I think as we go into the first of the year and the economy remains soft, we are going to see more promotional ads focused on incentives to buy and travel."

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