Back to Business As Usual. But Is That a Good Thing?

It’s been two weeks now since the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Two weeks since a sight only imaginable to Hollywood unfolded before our eyes on live television. Two weeks since Wall Street stockbrokers and blue-collar hard-hats, street vendors and street sweepers, all Americans — black, white, and every other color and creed — bonded in that crucible of fire that was the World Trade Center.

Now, most of the country is getting back into the swing of things. Americans are going to work to do their jobs, drink their coffee, and take their kids to school. Brief reminders of what happened pop in their email inboxes in the form of another forwarded Nostradamus prophecy or pictures from around the world showing images of sympathy and solidarity with the United States; but, for the most part, folks are starting to limp along, if not move in full stride, toward the future.

Most important, the media is beginning to settle back into its old complacency, wrapping the American brain in its comforting glow of reliability and sameness. Thirty-second and fifteen-second narratives are back on television, reassuring us that not even the deaths of over 6,000 people can keep us from enjoying our birthright as Americans to eat burgers or buy cars. Advertisements are promoting commercial patriotism, equating consumerism with nationalism (the good kind).

Even the Web, which received much praise from within the industry for so quickly addressing the events of September 11 regardless of commercial enterprise, is beginning to look like itself again.

But much of the Web status quo remained so even in the first days after the tragedy. I still got NextCard ads popping up as I moved from site to site looking for information. And the ubiquitous X10 pop-unders never once ceased their assault on Netizens despite America being under attack. In fact, of all the media, television did the most to suspend “business as usual” and set aside self-interest for the sake of getting information out to the masses; the Web, on the other hand, seemed to have done the least. I even saw one banner that looked like a public message of sympathy — a simple “We LOVE (with a red heart standing in for the word itself) New York” — only to find that it was an ad for the “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign.

Though advertising’s role is to promote the sales of products and services, perhaps now is a time for the industry to do something good for this country rather than merely exercising the “patriotization” of consumption. (I mean, 100 years ago, people used to die from “consumption” [we now call it tuberculosis]). Not since 1971 (when David McCall, chairman of big-time New York ad agency McCaffrey & McCall, noticed that his son could sing every Beatles and Stones lyric ever sung but couldn’t handle simple multiplication tables — and so gave America “School House Rock”) has the advertising industry really done something dramatic and meaningful for the country.

Maybe now the advertising industry can, without sacrificing the conduct of the business of business, step up to the plate and make a difference in this new world that has been forged in the fires of downtown Manhattan and Washington, D.C.

The digital media has shown that it can play a unique role in all of our lives on a daily basis, and it did this long before the events of September 11. In terms of content, there are practically no boundaries (not counting bandwidth issues). In terms of advertising units, the only limitation is a lack of creativity.

I would like to see those in the digital media space — particularly the giants that have suffered least as a result of the economic downturn, and will no doubt benefit most from the tragedy here in New York (think CNN, then think parent company of CNN) — do something interesting and important on the Web. Sure, banners promoting donations to the Red Cross and United Way are great, but how about something that will have a longer-term effect on us as citizens of the United States and as members of the human race? How about interactive lessons in a pop-up on religion and race and nationality, rather than a credit card offer or a Land’s End sale.

In times of uncertainty and war, our country has used propaganda in traditional media for negative purposes: teaching us how to hate the enemy or making us blind to our own downfalls. So, how cool would it be to get a Unicast superstitial prompting children to learn more about other cultures, or streaming media to give an example of Islamic prayers in song or speeches by civil rights leaders?

I learned some facts about America’s history and about good citizenship from the jingles and cartoons of “School House Rock” via the vehicle touted as the previous generation’s new media. Maybe a new generation of children can learn the world’s history and how to be a good global citizen via this generation’s new media.

Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.

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