Meister: Shake now, buy later


By Dick Meister

Attention fans of free enterprise: After the earthquake on Oct. l7, 1989, almost everyone with something to sell quickly began peddling earthquake specials

(Dick Meister is a longtime San Francisco journalist.)

Fans of free enterprise undoubtedly were pleased that the earthquake which caused such great damage in the Bay Area on Oct. 17, 1989, didn’t so much as dent the spirit of local entrepreneurs. They lost none of their eagerness to exploit any and all situations to their advantage – natural disasters unquestionably included.

Bankers and lawyers and utility companies, insurers, furniture and appliance stores, contractors and condo salesmen, jewelers and art dealers, office supply firms, clothiers, supermarkets, fast food outlets, hotels and restaurants, T-shirt vendors …

Seemingly everyone with something to sell quickly began peddling post-earthquake specials., trumpeting their offerings and congratulating themselves, their employees and, above all, their would-be customers for valorous conduct during the earthquake. A typical ad, for a chain of women’s clothing stores, followed a heartfelt salute to “the indomitable spirit of San Francisco and the Bay Area” with this important message: “Our Union Square store will reopen today at 1:00 p.m. Shop at our other stores. The ad thanked would-be customers for “the kind of support that has enabled us to resume normal hours at all our stores …. So, now we’re in a position to help you. If you need personal assistance in getting your life back together, please call ….”

It was most generous, that “personal assistance” offered by the stores’ courageous employees. Customers who owed money for past purchases could put off paying their current month’s bill until the next month, although the current month’s interest charges naturally would have to be paid eventually. What’s more, the stores offered to extend their customers’ credit limit, so they could buy even more goods on credit than ever before. They’d have no problem at all replacing their TV, VCR, CD player and other essentials – at the usual 20 percent interest rate, of course.

Most generous, too, were the folks at Brooks Brothers, where the elite who ran San Francisco’s social, economic and political establishment bought their button-down collars.

“We wish to announce,” said a Brooks Brothers ad in the grand Brooks Brothers’ manner, “that 5 percent of our total sales this week will be donated to the Salvation Army relief and American Red Cross funds for earthquake victims. We are proud to be part of San Franciscans helping San Franciscans.”

An art dealer down the street advertised an “Earthquake Relief Benefit Auction” of fine (and expensive) paintings, although specifying, in fine print, that only “a percentage” of the take would go to earthquake relief.

Shreve & Co., the nearby jeweler where San Francisco’s elite buy much of their gold, silver and diamonds, took out an ad to tell the world it had donated all of $5,000 to the Red Cross and thus “express our commitment to the San Francisco community and gratitude for our good fortune.”

People in the advertising business call that “cause marketing,” a technique practiced most noticeably by Burger King. The fast-food giant ran TV ads in which no less a personage than the firm’s chief executive officer, Barry Gibbons, promoted the new “BK Doubles” cheeseburgers by promising that for e very “BK Double” bought, Burger King would donate 25 cents—25 cents! -- to the Red Cross relief fund for earthquake victims.
Although donating nothing material, others had messages that surely were heartwarming to earthquake victims.

“We pledge our resources to the rebuilding process and salute all the Bay Area residents who have responded to the challenges of the past week with courage, caring, and commitment,” said a particularly moving ad from Nieman Marcus.

Banks and savings and loan institutions were generous, though, or certainly at least as generous as you’d expect banks and savings and loan institutions to be. A few offered emergency loans at slightly reduced rates, but most were offering exactly what they usually offered, although carefully making it seem they were performing great deeds by lending money to the needy. Some told borrowers, in large print at the top of ads, that they could wait a month to make payments due for currently outstanding loans, but telling them, in small print at the bottom of the ads, that they would of course be billed later for the interest charges on the payments they skipped.

Earthquake victims, said one bank, “need compassion and relief.” And they could get it in the form of loans at 9 percent interest.

Hotels, some with business down as much as 75 percent because of the exodus of tourists, generously offered rooms to commuters at bargain rates. Earthquake repair work had closed several major routes to the city and greatly slowed traffic on others, and one hotel chain, “realizing commuting for the next few weeks or months could be difficult,” offered a “commuter’s rate” of $45 a night. The hotels donated $5 of that to an earthquake relief fund – in hopes, they said, that “This service will assist Bay Area workers as the city returns to normal.” Others offered such deals as “a special 50% discount rate on all our luxurious accommodations.”

Insurance companies were at least as distressed as hotels, and trying as hard to disguise it.

“We want to help …. We’re here to help …. We want to get you back on your feet …. Working around the clock …. Grace period extended – with sympathetic understanding …. We only wish we could do more,” said their ads.

“We care!” declared a leading furniture store’s ad. It noted, “We will be glad” to sell merchandise to anyone with the means to pay for it, even if they had to use “special extended credit.”

Need a new stove, refrigerator, freezer, washer, dryer, dishwasher? No problem. Local appliance dealers touting a “Disaster Relief Plan” would even give buyers a rebate. Actually, it was the same deal most were offering before the earthquake, but that, of course, was not mentioned in their ads.

Neither did the home improvement company whose large ads proclaimed its desire “to help you through these troubled times,” note that its concern had not quite moved it to actually lower prices.

Those who nevertheless remained troubled could arrange to have a session – for $69 – with “a Ph.D.” skilled in the art of “intervention with the trauma survivor.”

Business firms needing office supplies and equipment were assured that “The Office Place has what you need to gear up fast for a very demanding 4th quarter …. Quick and easy and positively affordable.”

How about some new golf clubs? You could get a deal on the “After Shock Sale” at a leading sporting goods firm, just one of the very many other retailers throughout the area that held post-earthquake sales.

The least you could do was buy an “I survived the Earthquake” T-shirt.

Dick Meister is a longtime San Francisco journalist. You can contact him through his website,, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.