These Times

In early December, I was getting out of the car to go renew my driver’s license at a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) office when I heard the unmistakable sound of gunshots. By reflex, I ducked behind the car.

More shots rang out. The scene not 30 yards from me seemed surreal. There, outside the DPS office, were people casually taking a last drag on their cigarettes before heading inside to take care of the state-mandated requirements. What were they thinking? Had they grown so inured to urban violence? Were they sleepwalking through their lives?

No. It’s just that they knew something I didn’t: that there is a highway police officer’s shooting range next door.

I am not jumpy or nervous by nature. But ever since September 11, I’ve been looking at the world a little differently — more warily. I’m more aware now of footsteps behind me, even in crowded places. Recently, I caught myself reviewing train schedules in anticipation of an upcoming business meeting in Michigan. Train schedules! I haven’t been on a train since I was barely one year old.

I know that I’m not alone in this.

Gun merchants report that sales are booming. The consumption of comfort foods and beer has increased. We crave a return to some kind of normalcy. Thus, a California newspaper publisher was roundly booed and hissed off the stage at a college gathering because she dared talk about the importance of our civil liberties. She wasn’t questioning the goal of rooting out terrorists. Indeed, her remarks were tame. It’s just that nobody wanted to hear anything that might imply the party is really over.

This is a theme I notice when I’m around folks in their mid-20s or younger. I sense that they feel somehow betrayed. They’re thinking that “we” should have been more careful with the boom and saved them some. (Sorry for that. I didn’t even save some for me.) Wasn’t it “our” excesses that brought bin Laden’s wrath upon us as some kind of insane lacerating corrective? (That isn’t such an absurd or cruel thought when you consider our cultural exports include such melodramas of “conspicuous consumption” as “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” I’ve imagined a parody of such productions that would feature no people at all, just designer clothing, hair, jewelry, cars, and mansions doing scenes together.)

At the end of September, a young colleague asked me, “Is it going to be just downhill from here?” He wasn’t talking about the economic cycle. He was worrying about a cultural one. Suddenly, I remembered that scene in “On The Beach” in which racecars careen wildly around the track because, after all, there is no point in being careful anymore. Missiles have been launched. The hours are numbered. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.

Back in 1999, in a ClickZ article about Y2K, I noted that something in us longs for a time of black-and-white, stark choices and unconditional parole from the constraints of the equivocal. It’s as if all the almosts and what-ifs that gather like leaves in one’s life become, at some point, just too much. You want — just this once — to stand and sing aloud, to proclaim life like Whitman did, or to grab guns and trucks and hunt down the evildoers. You’re tired of the questions, yours and others. You want to feel what Mishkin felt when facing the firing squad. You want to see the world the way a lover sees it: with skies and faces and streets and songs brimming over with too much meaning. It is time for your release from the ordinary and everyday: the taxes, the car repairs, the torn cartilage in your left knee, the trips to the supermarket, the freeways, the woman or man who said no or the one who said yes, the years of inevitable decline.

What if — because of some cataclysm or war — you could, for a few moments or days, stand apart from ethics and social expectations, take your breaths like the animal you are, leap the gap between thought and deed, and live by the pulse in your blood? How different would you be?

(I think it is peculiarly American, this lust for defining exceptional moments. We Americans crave our breakthroughs. We want Oprah’s Dr. Phil to break us open with his tough love. We suspect that we aren’t what we should be. We can’t be happy with what we are.)

In the light of all that happened on September 11, there is another theme. Several of us are sitting at our desks this morning wondering if what we do and the way we live are meaningful at all. Next to the deeds of heroes and the tragedies of the grieving, what does any of it a matter — the email campaign, the promising career as a technology marketer, any of it?

OK, now here’s the surprise: All of this has to do with marketing. Marketing isn’t a vacuum-sealed compartment, isolated from a dirty, confusing world. You bring to marketing the entirety of your lived and imagined life. And those to whom you market bring all of their lived and imagined lives to the messages you send and the opportunities you create.

Especially given all that’s transpired these past few months, I think you must take greater care with these messages and opportunities. Specifically, I think it is time for plain speaking, candor, explicit promises that you are honor-bound to keep, and understatement as opposed to exaggeration.

And if this counsel seems antithetical to everything you’ve come to know as marketing, you’re right. It is. And it’s about damned time.

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