Ads Relive Unbearable Sadness of Post-9/11 Trauma

WTC Memorial Spot is Illogical, but the Campaign is Unforgettable

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The film rolls. The view is lower Manhattan, from an outer-borough vantage, and the tension is unbearable. The sounds are the quotidian ambience of the city, gradually underlaid by pulsing, slowly shifting electronic chords. You know what's coming before the superimposed type fades in.
"Where were you when it happened?"

Unbearable tension
Oh, God. This about 9/11. And to realize that is to clutch, because next the plane will inch into view. When? When will the fuselage pierce the tower, creating a dandelion puff of debris and flame? The tension is unbearable.

So unbearable you haven't registered that this shot is of the present skyline; the towers are no longer there. And then the scene changes, yielding more tension still. It's a woman in her kitchen, back to the window, her beagle penned behind a gate. The woman is plain and unsmiling. Cut to a couple, American Gothic in a Southampton sort of way. They look at the camera, deadpan.

Then a little girl at long distance, in an ice rink, skating, alone. Then a young man in a locker room, Bill Murrayish, blank verging on hangdog. And so on. A teacher. A fire fighter. A bus driver. A subway commuter, pointing toward the edge of the platform at the very spot. This is film such as we've never seen.

WTC Memorial Foundation
Oh, we've seen people posing in their natural habitat before, and not always with smiles. But these expressions of expressionlessness are simply heartbreaking. Finally, at long last, the message: "Let's not forget. Help build the memorial. World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. It's time."

This is the centerpiece of a pro bono campaign (actually, parallel campaigns) for the WTC Memorial from TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York. It is deeply moving. Standing alone, it would also be deeply flawed.

The problem is internal logic. It's all about how 9/11 is seared into New York's psyche and our own personal memories. We know exactly where on the subway platform we were standing, for crying out loud. The commercial documents the universality of the indelibility. Yet the message is to build the memorial so that we don't forget.

Not forgetting is a done deal
Don't forget? Hasn't TBWA just spent 59 seconds establishing that we've all got that covered? Not forgetting is a done deal. Which raises the question: Then what exactly does the WTC Memorial have to offer-other than satisfying the impulse to consecrate, with brick and mortar, the sacred burial ground?

That's not meant to be a rhetorical question. There is an answer to it-furnished by the parallel campaign. While we all give perpetual refuge to our private recollections of 9/11, we are perhaps at unnecessary risk. Risk of psychological trauma, of isolation, of cynicism, of numbness. Risk of squandering the cathartic release, and human connection, of shared experience.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, New Yorkers sensed how to purge their private horrors. They found one another at makeshift memorials, and spontaneously coalesced. It was Close Encounters of the First Kind: total strangers, at once stricken and compelled, converging to grieve and pay tribute, to share stories and connect. At Union Square, at firehouses, on walls and ledges, sidewalks and fountains. Almost overnight, a city of strangers constructed a galaxy of shrines.

'We need one now'
The second half of the campaign documents those shrines and tenders a simple assertion. "We needed one then. We need one now."

These ads are not quite so affecting. They are, however, infinitely more persuasive. Probably the split message has more to do with politics than strategy, but the result is strangely fitting. One leaves unanswered questions. The other offers closure. They struggle alone. Together, they find strength. ~ ~ ~

Review 3 stars
Ad: WTC Memorial
Agency: TBWA/Chiat/Day
Location: New York