Colonial Williamsburg Punts on Super Bowl Ad

Update: Colonial Williamsburg’s website is once again featuring the Super Bowl commercial.

After intense criticism Colonial Williamsburg has removed its Super Bowl ad from its website as well as its social media pages.  [You can still see it here.] A number of criticisms were leveled including its cost, but the one that has been voiced the most concerns the use of footage of the collapse of the World Trade Center in reverse.

Colonial Williamsburg attempted to deal with the backlash by reminding the public that:

“Leaving out images deemed to be negative or sad would not be an honest representation of history. Nor would leaving out moments such as JFK’s death, the triumph of American forces in the bloody Pacific theater of World War II or images of slavery. Those are all depicted in the ad, too.

Williamsburg’s role in the formation of America’s institutions and spirit is undeniable and it threads through all of our experiences as Americans. Our goal was simply to show that intense connectivity we have to each other and to this place.”

Another spokesman from CW offered this in response:

“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. We cannot forget our sacrifices or our tragedies even as we celebrate our accomplishments.

It’s unfortunate that the concerns of individuals and families directly connected to that day are referred to as data points.

What CW still doesn’t seem to understand is that for many people 9-11 is not like any other historical event. For many it is still a part of their lived memory. This distinguishes it from more remove events from our national past. The ad was aired in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, which means it was viewed by 9-11 families and others who were directly impacted by that horrific day.

The sight was a bit jarring for me given that it likely pinpointed the exact moment of the death of my cousin, Alisha Levin. Did CW really expect people with a direct connection to that day to view its use in a commercial as an opportunity to reflect on, ‘Where it all began’?

I tried to touch on the challenges present in interpreting and marketing 9-11 in an article I wrote a few years ago for the Atlantic. I still think much of the analysis holds up.

32 comments… add one
  • I realize what a sensitive subject this is — on a deeply personal level — for people with connections to victims and the areas touched by the attacks. But while the ad itself was obviously a commercial, I don’t think I would agree that the clip from 9-11 was used in an overtly commercial way. The ad featured major moments in American history and 9-11 is likely tied with the end of the Cold War as the most significant, domestically and globally, of my lifetime. At the end of the day, though, whether we like it or not, 9-11 *is* fundamentally like other historical events, awful and painful as it continues to be. Culling it from the usable past not only downplays its importance as part of the American experience, but temporarily prioritizing it as worse than other horrific moments from our national past (slavery, etc.) seems to run the risk of doing more to enable the scrubbing away of those moments than any real safeguarding of 9-11’s memory?

    • Hi Matt,

      All good points. Let me be clear that I was attempting to describe why many people were upset with the ad that starts with my own personal experience. I am not denying your larger point, though showing the collapse of the Towers in revers could be considered “overtly commercial” by some.

      Culling it from the usable past not only downplays its importance as part of the American experience, but temporarily prioritizing it as worse than other horrific moments from our national past (slavery, etc.) seems to run the risk of doing more to enable the scrubbing away of those moments than any real safeguarding of 9-11’s memory?

      Again, given the lived aspect of this particular event for many Americans it is different from other historical events and it will remain the case for some time.

      • That’s entirely fair, Kevin. My thoughts on this are unavoidably influenced by all of the other recent activity on this front, so I do wonder how I would’ve reacted to the commercial without that context. On a related note, it’s a little stunning to talk with current college students about 9-11. In my survey course two years ago, the vast majority of them weren’t old enough to have vivid, primary memories of it, which is exactly how I remember discussions going *my* freshman year at UF about the Berlin Wall coming down. There’s a fascinating discussion to be had here about how long a generation gets to claim commemorative supremacy and the process through which events like this are gradually replaced and inserted into the usable past. (Civil War vets were pretty lucky on this front, not having another war of similar scope pop up until WW1 and even then, having it happen on foreign soil.)

        • I’ve noticed the same dynamic in my classroom over the past decade and it certainly has had an impact on how I approach the subject with my students. For my students in recent years it really is just another historical event. At times I have had to remind myself of this.

          • Maybe what you want to achieve with them is a realization that, even though to them 9/11 is simply a historical event that is no more traumatizing to them than Pear Harbor is to all but a few Americans today, there are still a lot of Americans, even ones who were small children at the time, for whom the trauma of 9/11 is still intense, especially those who lost a friend or relative. What we can hope for, from the 9/11, is respect and courtesy for the feelings of others. Empathy is an important quality.

            As for Colonial Williamsburg, if they believed that 9/11 couldn’t be ignored in what they were communicating, perhaps they could have found something that represented 9/11 in a less brutally traumatic way such as the photo of the firefighters with the US flag, or the commemorative blue beacons of light coming from the site of the Towers. I didn’t lose anyone myself, although I know people who did, in addition to you, Kevin, but, on the issue of using footage of the actual collapse of one of the Towers, I can’t even come close to being able to imagine how horrible it would be to watch something that showed the actual point in time when someone I loved died. They showed JFK alive (there was a flag-draped coffin later but I’m not sure whose it was) but they didn’t use the Zapruder film of the actual assassination. They showed a wounded soldier being carried on a litter but I don’t think the soldier was identifiable. So the commercial itself showed that they could have made their point without showing the actual collapse.

            • Great points, Margaret. Thanks.

            • “As for Colonial Williamsburg, if they believed that 9/11 couldn’t be ignored in what they were communicating, perhaps they could have found something that represented 9/11 in a less brutally traumatic way such as the photo of the firefighters with the US flag, or the commemorative blue beacons of light coming from the site of the Towers.”

              This seems to be having it both ways, though. On one hand, it’s not acceptable to appropriate 9/11 for commercial purposes (i.e., principle); on the other, it’s OK so long as the images utilized to appropriate it aren’t too high on the trauma scale (i.e., censored). The event itself was utterly terrible, that’s indisputable. But that indisputable terribleness is also what endows it with so much cultural and historical power. Trying to recollect the event in ways that sidestep the source of that power is almost as artificial as the concept behind CW ad.

              • Trying to recollect the event in ways that sidestep the source of that power is almost as artificial as the concept behind CW ad.

                Do we really need to see the towers collapse in this commercial to be able to appreciate “the source of that power”? I don’t think so.

                • Would showing another image, knowing full-well that it would only trigger mental recollections of the towers falling for 99% of the population old enough to remember or to have a real connection the event, really achieve anything different? Maybe the gesture itself would be worthwhile, but the broader cost of the gesture within the context of how the past has been approached lately by the general public lately (as something to be picked and chosen in a way that suits us as pleasant) seems too high. We’ll probably just have to agree to disagree on this one and you can buy me a drink at SCWH in Chattanooga!

                  • Good question. I don’t how another image would play in such a commercial. What I do know is that people expressed concern about using footage of the towers collapsing in reverse in this commercial. All I have attempted to do is explain why.

                    A drink sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately I don’t think I am going to be able to make it this year.

    • I, like many other people in the NYC area, knew people who died that day (a cousin and two co-workers). I saw it happen live from the N.J. side of the Hudson River and I saw it dozens of more times on TV the next few days. Is the suggestion that footage of 9/11 not be shown until everyone who had some personal connection to the event has passed on? Should we have been hiding images of the Holocaust for the past 70 years because it may have caused someone pain to remember it? Or maybe showing holocaust images are OK because they don’t exactly “pinpoint” the death of a particular person and therefore cause no one any pain? Playing any of those historical events in reverse was pretty corny, but I find nothing special about the 9/11 footage. I am sorry if someone hasn’t sufficiently grieved over the loss of a loved one, but I want the next three generations not only to learn about what happened, but to also see those images and also to see any images of the many courageous persons who tried to rescue the victims.

      • Hi Ken,

        Thanks for the comment. I am certainly not suggesting that we not show footage of 9-11. I think the issue for many people who responded negatively was whether this ad in particular was an appropriate place to include it. Sorry for your loss, Ken.

  • “Remembering” 9-11 bothers me in a different way: the half staffing of flags every 9-11 seems to be overkill –I grew up in the post-WWII era and we did not half-staff flags on December 7. There were newspaper articles and radio (and later TV) shows but Pearl Harbor was not remembered with sadness.

    Although I did not have any relatives at Pearl Harbor, every adult member of my family served in WWII and an uncle was killed in action.

  • “At some point, the generation that lived through the events of 9/11 will hand over the burden of remembrance to a new generation of Americans. Their interpretation of the event will be informed by a more remote reading of the historical record, which will inevitably shape new forms of remembrance and commemoration.”

    Mr. Levin, does historical analysis get better after the involved generation passes or it is just done in a new way?

    I think most civil war historians would argue they do a better job of objective analysis now than was done in the past when the veterans were alive. In your Atlantic article you seem to agree with this idea when you say our modern “new perspective was much more conducive to understanding the war’s complexity.”

    If that is the case, must we wait for the passing of individuals like John Lewis before we can partake in a better analysis of the events of the Civil Rights Movement?

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Mr. Levin, does historical analysis get better after the involved generation passes or it is just done in a new way?

      I don’t think it’s about one generation dying off, but about individuals who didn’t live through it being able to approach an event from a more detached perspective. It seems to me that at this point it becomes easier to ask certain questions about the place and meaning of an event within the broader historical narrative.

      No, John Lewis doesn’t have to die before we enjoy thoughtful historical analysis about the civil rights movement.

  • Teaching fifteen and sixteen year old children, I concur. My students have practically no memory of the events of 9/11. To them, it’s another event – yet, they are surrounded by adults who do remember 9/11 and constantly shape their perception of that day; good and bad.

  • So, I have typed, deleted and typed and deleted on this topic a few times now. I am not sure how to approach this. Ground Zero in NYC has especially deep meaning to me as well. Although I lost no one there, I did work on “the pile” as a soldier. I saw the damage, I remember the dead and, in the long run, it cost me much of my lung function. The place and the event mean something. But I was not bothered by the commercial. Indeed, I found it affirming. But that is me and I can easily see how others might be upset.

    I would like to say that I don’t buy into the contemporary desire, no need, to express my every outrage or slight to the greater public (I fear the looming day when outrage exhaustion hits us all and we simply won’t care) but perhaps the right button has not been pressed just yet. If anything, I was more bothered by the Jeep “You Built It” commercial that played on wounded veterans and such to note that “jeep has seen it all” (even though jeeps have been replaced by the M1097A2 or Humvee in modern warfare).

    I should note, however, that there is a vast difference between living memory and shared memory. As a nation we all share the memory of 9/11 while far fewer have lived it. Put simply, flags flown at half-mast in Kansas during 2001 were not covered by dust from the Ground Zero pile, but they signified the same emotional attachment. Put simply, a shared memory is a far lighter load to bear than a living one. All of this brings me to the Civil War, or more accurately military history.

    Only a tiny slice of American society has a living memory of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – even with the aid of nightly news stories – but almost everyone has a shared memory of it. Yet, I think much of America would be upset, or at least perplexed, if combat veterans of those wars claimed exclusive agency over those living memories – say in creating war memorials. Think about the debates we have had here over old, established monuments, recall the disgust (from both sides) over the design of the Vietnam War Memorial, and even the immediate debate over the coming WWI Memorial that just had the final design approved with much angst from landscape design preservationists. Many civil war monuments are products of living memory (and in some ways reconciliation), the Vietnam War Memorial was a dog-fight over living memory versus shared memory, while the WWI Memorial will be entirely based on shared memory. These are the bits and pieces of history that keep good historians on their toes. Shucking the light load of a shared memory, like a civil war monument, is easy to accomplish, but should be a long, agonizing discussion if only because at one time it too meant something – and that makes it history.

    Now, with all that said, I hope they wait to build a monument to my wars until long after I am dead and gone.

    • Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for not giving up on the comment.

      I do want to clarify that I was not “outraged” by the ad. What prompted me was CW’s response and their apparent inability to appreciate why certain people might be upset with the ad. Overall, it was a pretty bad year for Super Bowl commercials.

      I think you are right to distinguish between shared and living memory. While I agree that it would be unusual for veterans to claim authority over the shape of war memorials and other commemorations it certainly would not be unusual to ensure that their perspective or lived experience was recognized. Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

  • One of the big problems I have with the ad is that it’s pretty hard to see how the “achievement” of electing the first black president, 219 years after electing the first white one, owes anything whatsoever to Colonial Williamsburg.

    • Well, if you place CW at the center of the creation of the United States and believe that the expansion of freedom is inevitable than it has everything to do with Obama’s election. Of course, that’s just nonsense.

    • What I don’t see is how Williamsburg is in any way the “start” of ” we, the people.” Jamestown, New Amsterdam, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay all preceded it; not to mention St. Augustine. But I saw an excerpt from an upcoming documentary where it was claimed that St. Augustine is the “birthplace of freedom.” This is based on the sheltering of escaped Carolina slaves in the 18th century in exchange for military service against the British. The preview failed to mention that slavery continued in St. Augustine until the 19th century. I didn’t know there was freedom in a place where only a portion of the population of free. Apparently, accurate history is interfering with the competition for tourist dollars.

  • Before I criticize, let me say that I absolutely love Williamsburg. In fact, I was just up there this weekend; at the W&M library, studying obscure historical records, on Friday and Saturday. I also visited with friends and attended a service at Bruton. Every time I walk past the Governor’s mansion, I get choked up because that’s where my late father proposed to my Mom in 1984. It means a lot to me.

    BUT THAT COMMERCIAL. Oh, God. It just feels so crass and icky. Like they’re “cashing in” on the tragedies.

    Real talk, folks: Colonial Williamsburg is as commercial as Disneyland. It exists to make money and sell products. Wooden pop guns, “Don’t Tread on Me” coffee mugs (yes, I bought one), dice games, shot glasses, books and CDs, Christmas ornaments, pillows, blankets, overpriced restaurants, ice-skating, carriage rides, fancy chocolates and ice cream and hand-dipped caramel pecan things on a stick …… I could go on forever. It’s basically a theme park, albeit history-themed and slightly educational. Which is fine, as long as they don’t try and compare it to something as heavy and horrible as 9/11.

    And the context was a hot mess. Vietnam? Ronald Reagan? It was so random; it had nothing to do with Williamsburg (and no, the country did not start in Williamsburg). The footage was in bad taste. Plain and simple. :_(

    “They could have found something that re=presented 9/11 in a less brutally traumatic way such as the photo of the firefighters with the US flag.”

    ^This. Thanks, Margaret. 🙂

  • Indeed. “CW is the center of creation of American Slavery” is more accurate than “CW is the center of creation of American Liberty”.

  • On a less substantive note, the commercial is just terrible advertising. I can’t see how it would in any way induce people to visit Colonial Williamsburg. The droning monotone of Tom Brokaw is off-putting and the mangling of historical images by running the footage backwards offers something to offend almost everybody,

    The relatives of the 9-11 dead are perfectly within their rights to object to the image of the WTC being used for commercial gain, and almost any competent advertising agency would have seen that coming a mile away.

    • I thought it was a poor ad as well with or without the collapsing towers.

      Unless a viewer already has some familiarity with CW, you would have been completely lost. Why Tom Brokaw? My biggest problem with the ad, however, is that the end left me wondering, “So what”. In other words, why should it matter that “It started here”? Tell your viewer why it is important to explore what they take to be the origin of the American character.

      In short, it was a lazy ad.

  • I have been to CW a number of times, and despite various controversies and missteps, I like its idea of a historical amusement park.

    As a history lover, I have found it encouraging to see the streets of CW full of tourists, including young children enjoying their tricorner hats and toy guns (future customers!). An attraction like this will bring tourists who wouldn’t consider taking their kids to a NPS battle site, or to a museum geared to adults.

  • I did not get to watch the Peyton Manning gets ring #2 game, as I was driving across country. However, I think this ad is utterly fantastic. It is simple and it is clever. As a tourist long before I worked in the field of history, I find the ad achieves its goal.

  • I’m from NY (although now living in NJ) and did see the commercial. A good friend lost some relatives on 9/11. I thought the ad was an interesting idea and thought nothing of its inclusion of the 9/11 images.

    However, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea. I would have thought that the ad agency making the ad would have debated the use of the images and omitted it from the ad that played. Perhaps they did and decided to leave it in on the theory that ometimes bad publicity is better than none.

  • Is CW a big enough tourist destination to advertise on a nationwide scale like that? I mean, I go up there all the time. But big whoop, I live in Norfolk. It’s like 30 miles.

    But do people in Oklahoma or Alaska give a rat’s butt? And will they invest all that money to fly out to Virginia? I doubt it. This seems more like something that should air during Virginia college football. Maybe a W&M versus ODU game or something.

  • I watched it without the sound; I also found the WTC-in-reverse to be jarring. It is/was, essentially, a tomb for hundreds of people – although one doesn’t see the bodies, it’s akin to watching footage of a plane crash or ship sinking where lives were lost. Just inappropriate.

    The other thing that struck me is if the object was some sort of “America can trace its history back to Williamsburg” okay, but then at least do the commercial in reverse chonological order. Didn’t really make sense anyway, but made even less sense with what amounted to a fairly random set of images, moving and otherwise.


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