The New Relevance

I sat and sat and sat. I went for a walk; sold some old books; read every newspaper I had near to hand; rode Muni, San Francisco’s light rail; and read last week’s Time magazine cover to cover while riding BART (San Francisco’s heavier rail). I even cleaned out my home office in preparation of moving back to New York City next week. I’ve sold my television, so there is nothing to watch. I even went to the movies for the first time in, God, maybe a month.

But I can’t stop thinking about the events of September 11, 2001.

I was hoping to write something related to Tom Hespos’s piece last week, which discussed email and whether it is working. I got as far as talking out the body of what I was going to write while walking to and from the public transportation pick-up and drop-off locales (that is part of my writing process, talking out what I want to write… my roommates love it when I do that in the shower).

Then I saw the cover of October 1’s New Yorker. I was frozen. It was an illustrated image of the New York I had just left a few days ago, when I returned to SF to tend to some personal business. If you haven’t seen it, go out and get a copy or ask to see a friend’s. For those readers in Manhattan, you will know the image — people bustling by, getting on with their lives, walking briskly past a fire station where someone has laid pictures of fallen firefighters and others have surrounded them with candles and flowers. If you’ve seen such a site, you know what it feels like. Even the Grinch or Mr. Burns would shed a tear (“Well… in Who-ville they say / That the Grinch’s small heart / Grew three sizes that day!”).

Seeing that picture made me realize how far we have to go before we get back to normal. And what constitutes normal now will not be the normal we knew before.

I came back to San Francisco to close up my old home here (after being bicoastal for the last year) before settling decidedly in New York. That process, always one of difficult decision making, was utterly transformed by the events of September 11. Suddenly what was relevant and important no longer mattered in the ways they once did, and I’ve been getting rid of old things — like scraps of paper infused with sentimentality that I’d been hanging onto — much more easily.

Now it seems that my life-long quest to make sentiment tangible has instead turned into an exorcism of frivolity. That isn’t to say that it is impossible to preserve tangible reminders of joy; I will never get rid of my deceased grandfather’s 10-pound rubber-band ball or his confirmation certificate written in Lithuanian. But priorities have reshuffled like the documents that were scattered like dried, dead butterflies all over downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn when the Twin Towers came down.

What will be relevant in this new world we find ourselves in? Writers and critics have bandied about the concept of the “death of irony” much the same way that historians did the idea of “the end of history” after Francis Fukuyama’s essay in Foreign Affairs some 10 years ago declared as much at the end of the Cold War. Though I suspect that the rumors of irony’s death are much exaggerated, there is no doubt that meaning has shifted in ways that will still be unclear long after the one million tons of debris are cleared away.

How is advertising going to regain its relevance? In the post-modern, deconstructive era, advertising had to gain a new foothold in our public consciousness by acknowledging the sophistication of a media-savvy generation numbed by a preponderance of consumer messaging. We had to either be personally significant through well-targeted placements in niche media or adopt tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating, and humorous narratives aimed at just the right demographic. In the post-deconstructive era of the Internet, advertising had to take that targeting and humor and focus it like a laser beam on psychographics and states of mind.

But how is the industry going to cope with the enormity of what has happened? Advertising has always created desires and turned them into needs in a frictionless, almost liquid, environment. How can Procter & Gamble associate diapers with security and smiles, given that we’re facing such uncertainty? I’ve no doubt we will get on with our existence and do the right thing. Winston Churchill purportedly once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” The appropriate next move now, however, is far from clear.

I am still getting spam telling me how to reduce my monthly debt payments by 60 percent or how to get a university diploma through the mail or how to get my computer to run at “warp speed.” This is the worst of irrelevance in light of the events of September 11.

Whatever we do, we’ve got to get it right. Broadcast media will rely on its old tricks of emotional manipulation and recency. But the digital media space has a chance now to reinvent itself before it has even been fully formed. This is a project for everyone who has stuck it out in this industry through the other entire business-related trauma that has been suffered by the industry. You have already proved yourselves survivors.

Now let’s see if we can be leaders.

(Thank you for your patience with me these last few weeks. It’s been a tough time for all of us, to be sure. I promise you, next week will be that article on email I was going to write for you this week. It will be my first step toward the new “normal.” — JM)

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