My most memorable Memorial Day ad was kind of a disaster. I was outside of our Park Slope brownstone, loading up our minivan with the million and one items needed for a weekend at the beach with four young sons, when my tiny little Nokia phone rang.
“Did we say ‘Memorial Day is all about BBQs and having fun?’” barked the stressed-out account guy on the other end.
“Um yeah, why do you ask?” I replied innocently as I tried to find room for the swim shoes, the swim shirts, and the extra-large pack of swim diapers.
“Because our client’s senior leadership is getting hate emails from veteran’s groups across the country.”
“Oh boy,” I said, with the sudden sinking feeling that I was definitely not going to beat the traffic on the Long Island Expressway after all.
Yeah, that happened. We shot a commercial where the happy Dad standing in a big box home improvement grill department said the words “Memorial Day, it’s all about barbeques and having fun with friends.”
A small turn of phrase that turned out to be gigantically offensive. And this was long before the cancel culture frenzy of today.
We meant no disrespect. It was completely inadvertent. And it was always in the script that way, so everyone up and down the gigantic approval chain approved that line. We all missed it. And we all felt really stupid for missing it.
Memorial Day has always been a kind of somber holiday oddly placed at the beginning of the sun-shiny happy days of summer. When I was a kid, every Memorial Day my parents would take us to visit the graves of my grandparents. We’d get dressed up in our itchy church clothes and drive to two different graveyards, one for my dad’s mom, and one for my mom’s dad, and put flowers on the graves of people I had never met. It was never my favorite holiday for this reason. But I guess that’s what the original intent of Memorial Day was: to remember those who’ve passed, either our family, or our country’s fallen heroes. Over the years, that purpose has become eclipsed by the marketing opportunity the day represents because of its placement in the calendar as the unofficial start of summer.
What got me thinking about this was I recently created a Memorial Day holiday weekend ad for a very 2021 post-pandemic product, a no contact thermometer. “In order to cook your ribs to the proper, delicious, ‘meat falling off the bone’ temperature?” you might ask?
No, not for your ribs. For your guests.
The idea is you can feel better about gathering together this Memorial Day holiday if you can screen everyone around the picnic table to see whether they’re running a fever. When did anyone ever think that a no contact thermometer would be required equipment for your Memorial Day barbeque? It sounds like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi story.
This made me feel a strangely conflicted combination of sad and glad. Sad that it’s come to this - temp taking to feel safe in our own backyards. And glad that we are starting to return to the kind of normal events that we used to completely take for granted - like gathering together on Memorial Day.
This Memorial Day weekend, my completely vaccinated wife and I will be celebrating with our kids and maybe a few friends from the neighborhood eating hotdogs around the grill we purchased on sale from a big box store like the patriotic Americans we all are. I think we’ll all feel a little bit more grateful to be together. And I know we’ll all be silently thinking of the ones who aren’t there with us. The shocking total number of Americans lost that we see climbing ever higher while this pandemic rages on.
And we’ll remember them. Maybe we’ll even imagine ourselves putting a flower or two on the graves of these people we’ve never met.
It’s the happy somber truth of what Memorial Day is all about. I think after this year, after the perspective we’ve all gotten, we’ll never forget that again.
Wil Boudreau is founder and chief creative officer of Boudreau Advertising