"A Nation Changed" countered the front page of my hometown paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. But the evidence inside indicated that, at least in one way, it hasn't changed much.
After 364 days in which we were never allowed to forget the unforgettable, we were now being asked to pause for a day of remembrance. For weeks before the anniversary, the airwaves crackled, magazine covers opined and emoted and newspapers bulged with stories about the stories, comments about the commentary and coverage of the coverage. So many moving images that, after a while, there was no place left to move. So many touching words that finally we couldn't feel them anymore.
Then came the Big Day and with it the Special Issues. Page after page of tragic personal recollections, penetrating investigative reports, profound editorial insight, haunting photography. And the advertisers piled on like cockroaches on a corn muffin.
`in remembrance: open from 9-6'
Bloomingdale's remembered (while also remembering to post store hours). More discreetly, so did Saks and Lord & Taylor. Target (artful as ever) limited its brand identification to a tiny icon. J.C. Penney promised a commemorative flag photo to the patriotic shopper. And, thankfully, "the men and women of Lockheed Martin" (I'm guessing kids and pets were not consulted) were there to remind us that "we live in the home of the brave." Not that they might have any vested interest in our pursuit of war.
I will exclude from criticism those advertisers who took out space for the grim task of commemorating their dead. The Sandler O'Neill & Partners message in the Times was sincere, heart-wrenching and devoid of commercial intent. The pilots union ad, featuring portraits of the four airline captains, was a likewise touching tribute. I will also excuse the museums, and even the broadcasters, whose purpose was simply to direct readers to a specific exhibit or TV show dealing with 9/11-related subject matter. Theirs was simply a classic use of relevant media to attract an already-interested audience.
Kmart, on the other hand, should have known better. In one of the few ads obviously crafted by an agency, the Lower Manhattan skyline (sans towers) was reflected in the Hudson (avec towers) over the headline "We'll Never Forget." A striking image, a simple declaration-both rendered null and void by the big red "K" signature, standing out as vulgar and ugly as a pimp parked in front of a pre-school.
It got worse, of course.
In the Inquirer , we Philadelphians were treated to an excerpt of Lincoln's Gettysburg address, courtesy of the Drug Emporium; some tender sentiment from the men and women of Boscov's; and my personal favorite, a heartfelt tribute to "the invincible spirit of Americans" from the staunch patriots at "Sleepy's(r) The Mattress Professionals(r)."
To be charitable, these were not malicious mistakes. Nor for a moment do I question the sincerity of intentions behind most of these ads. Advertisers, like the rest of us, have not been here before. Few of us are old enough to remember how we're supposed to act on the first anniversary of a devastating national loss. (Losing, knock wood, is not one of the skills we Yanks have ever been required to master.) We're all improvising here. None of us knows exactly the right thing to do or say. And, as our friends in the cable TV news industry seem determined to prove on a 24-hour basis, the desire to say something is hard to resist.
But here's the deal: Advertising is in the business of selling us things. Advertisers do not express views or sentiments except as a means of insinuating themselves in order to sell us things. And no matter how tastefully you express it, the murder of 3,000 American civilians is not a basis for a sales call.
Squint into the horizon a decade or two from now and it's not so hard to envision a day when annual messages of shared sorrow will give way to rote expressions of patriotism. And then finally settle into a pattern of kitschy retail newspaper ads (replete with cartoon caricatures of Bush and Bin Laden) touting the annual 9/11 sale.
Advertising, for all its capitalist virtue, trivializes everything it touches. It has diminished the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, each of whom waged and won bloody wars to preserve the freedoms we claim to cherish. It has done much the same for the birthday of one Jesus of Nazareth, whose sacrifice forms the cornerstone of our predominant religious faith.
There is a simple credo, successfully practiced by generations of college freshmen and Marine recruits, that states: "If you don't know anything, don't say anything." Next September, advertisers would do well to remember this-and to recognize an unstated corollary of the Right to Free Speech: It is the option not to exercise it. There is no more eloquent tribute to a fallen comrade than a moment of silence.
Nat Gutwirth is VP-creative, Weightman Group, Philadelphia.