Normal life may not have changed as much as we think

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For the first time in my life, I rang in the new year in Times Square, albeit comfortably separated from the freezing throng by plate glass, warm air and cold champagne. (At midnight I did step outside to watch the ball drop, so I'll claim the experience as real.) Since this was my first time participating in the ritual, I can't say how it compares to past years. But the celebration was, well, celebratory, and it struck me again how quickly life has returned to normal for those of us not directly affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

We were all impacted in some way, of course, and the aftermath of the attacks remains a dominant theme of everyday life, even if The New York Times has stopped publishing "A Nation Challenged" and again prints the sports pages right-side-up.

I'm not convinced everyday life has changed that dramatically for most people despite surveys that seem mostly designed to confirm preconceived notions or advance marketing aims. So I'll underscore a point first made in this space last fall: It would be a mis-take for marketers to alter strategies based on the belief that we have been wholly trans-formed-and, by extension,that our priori-ties and product preferences have changed.

That's not to say there won't be changes, or that marketers shouldn't study them and shift their approaches as needed. But most would be wise to avoid drawing conclusions too quickly and-so long as their messages aren't inappropriate in the current context-should stick to their existing scripts.

Early pronouncements about the death of irony and the end of our obsession with celebrity were quickly proven false. Now there are new theories being advanced about consumer attitudes. They sound reasonable-nesting, anyone?-but may turn out not to correlate with actual behavior.

The most popular New Year's resolutions were to enjoy life and devote more time to friends and family, according to a poll by General Nutrition Centers; these replaced weight loss and money management. That can be viewed either as confirmation that we are a deeper, more spiritual people whose priorities have been jostled into proper order or as a thinly veiled excuse to super-size our fries and rack up more credit-card debt. I'm not sure when it became unpatriotic to eat less (probably around the same time it became patriotic to buy a car), but my guess is most people answered that question in a way they felt they should. Marketers of diet products and fitness programs clearly agree, since commercial breaks on Jan. 1 were clogged as always with images of petite waistlines wrapped in tape measures.

The return to normal is also reflected in our entertainment choices. "Lord of the Rings" did $200 million in box office in three weeks. "CSI Crime Scene Investigation" tops the Nielsen ratings and-despite reports of the reality genre's collapse-"Survivor: Africa" still draws an audience. After a flurry of well meaning but often misguided flag-waving ads, the content of most ads is also pretty much back to routine. The patriotic theme is likely to return in some Super Bowl spots, but the more memorable ones will rely on humor-and perhaps even (gasp!) irony-to stand out.

A New Yorker cartoon humorously sums up the return to normal. "It's hard," one woman says to another, "but slowly I'm getting back to hating everyone."

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