For every generation there are moments so profound that we as a society can look back upon them and share the common experience of recollecting in vivid detail the unique experience we each lived that day. Much like all things in life, these moments can be good or bad but regardless, they remain etched within our memories in as much detail as the birth of a child or the day you said, “I do.” For one generation it was a day that lived in infamy as hostile actors filled a Hawaiian harbor with horror and heartache. For another, it was the unimaginable events that unfolded that November day in Dallas on some grassy knoll. Years later, it was Walter Kronkite broadcasting to the world that we had just taken one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. A decade-plus more and a wall that acted as just as much a societal metaphor as it did a physical deterrent crumbled, a cold war becoming suddenly more warm in the process. As the millennium turned, two towers that stretched the sky came crashing chaotically down, the building based around our national defense was compromised, while a plane full of heroes made sure the vessel carrying them came to rest in the Pennsylvania pines instead of meeting its predetermined fate to wreak even more unspeakable harm. Each September 11th, we as a nation reflect back on that day with remembrance of the brave souls who lost their lives that day and the ones still affected nearly two decades later. As businesses show their signs of respect for our great country and the men and women who serve it, we wanted to dedicate this post to a little known document residing in the halls of Congress that lays out the do’s and don’ts when it comes to using the ultimate symbol of American pride, the United States Flag.

Code of Honor

Many of us are familiar with some of the customs and traditions revolving around our national flag, but did you know Congress has explicitly set out a series of rules and guidelines regarding the stars and stripes? Per the United States Senate, 

“On June 22, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved House Joint Resolution 303 codifying the existing customs and rules governing the display and use of the flag of the United States by civilians. Amendments were approved on December 22nd of that year. The law included provisions of the code adopted by the National Flag Conference, held in Washington, D.C. on June 14, 1923, with certain amendments and additions. The Code was reenacted, with minor amendments, as part of the Bicentennial celebration. In the 105th Congress, the Flag Code was removed from title 36 of the United States Code and recodified as part of title 4.13”

“On the national level the Federal Flag Code provides uniform guidelines for the display of and respect shown to the flag. In addition to the Code, Congress has by statute designated the national anthem and set out the proper conduct during its presentation. The Code is designed for the use of such civilian groups or organizations as may not be required to conform with regulations promulgated by one or more executive departments of the federal government. Thus, the Flag Code does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance nor does it include enforcement provisions; rather the Code functions simply as a guide to be voluntarily followed by civilians and civilian groups.”

The code covers areas including: time and occasions for display, position and manner of display, the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem and the ways in which to show proper respect to the flag. Interestingly, it also includes guidelines for the flag’s use in mediums such as advertising, something many brands or businesses might not be aware of. As you’re paying proper respect to those who have or are serving, let’s take a look at how you can prevent your show of appreciation from turning into an unintentional act of disrespect.

Title 4 United States Code: § 8. Respect for Flag

Section 8, Title 4 of the United States states the US flag, “should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.” The wording here leaves no ambiguity. The American Flag should never be used in advertising. That waving flag graphic you saw in the background for a Labor Day car sale, it went against Title 4 of the United States Code. That guy wearing a giant Uncle Sam costume complete with U.S. Flag suit who’s holding a sign on a busy retail corner in your town, you guessed it, he’s (and the business he’s representing) showing disrespect to our national symbol. This brings us to an interesting question. When someone sees a business using the flag, whether it be in direct advertising or even on social media, are they truly offended by it or do they find the show of patriotism to be a positive thing? 

Different Strokes

We spoke to one veteran who had served 20 years in our Armed Forces. Here was his perspective on the issue, “There are only a couple of images that come to mind that instantly instill pride in an American citizen, the bald eagle and the American Flag.  Both of these images immediately reflect pride in our country. As a veteran, I have no issues with these emblems being used in advertisements when it is tastefully done. Again, as a veteran, my service in the United States Armed Forces has guaranteed the right to freedom of expression. Whether I see the America Flag on a tennis shoe, an advertisement or even a T-Shirt, I do not see disrespect. I see a person who is proud to be a part of one of the greatest countries in the world.” On our Facebook page, we put this question to our audience along with the example graphic you see above, “When you see advertorial content like the examples A (real flag) and B (illustrated flag) above, what’s your reaction?”. Out of our 26 respondents, 42% were indifferent to either option. 23% were offended only when a depiction of the real flag was used, and only one of our respondents was offended by using any depiction of the flag. One of our Facebook followers, Casey, had this to say,  “I’m not offended by any means but I wish Flag etiquette would be used when creating an ad. According to (the flag etiquette guide from Military.com), the ad on the left with the lady is wrong for many instances. 1) Don’t let the flag touch the ground. 2) Don’t use the flag as clothing. Illustrations or the likeness of a flag in a good meaning is a good go to.” What’s interesting here is how personal perceptions can vary on this issue. While neither of our advertorial examples above conform to the Flag Code, this user had a definitive opinion about the first ad being offensive yet seemed to look at the second example in a positive light. Our military member, likewise, contradicted the Flag Code, and finds the use of the flag to be very much a positive thing. 

Flag in Advertising Poll

Conclusion

One of the rules every marketer adheres to is making sure potential consumers aren’t unintentionally offended by the content they’re putting out there. A few years ago, Pepsi learned this lesson the hard way with an advertisement many of you might remember starring a certain Kardashian sister and an ill-placed can of cola. The ad was met with almost unanimous disapproval and resulted in a social media avalanche of negative feedback, the last thing any company (especially one that devoted millions of dollars to just this singular ad) wants to be faced with. While one person might see your company’s show of patriotism as the very thing that makes this country so great, another might see it as exploitative or an act of disrespect. One thing is for sure. Using the red, white and blue in your advertising content isn’t as black and white an issue as the US Flag Code might suggest. When in doubt on the proper course of action, however, it’s best to err on the side of caution so as not to unintentionally turn-off a potential customer.