The Perils of Patriotism

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On a recent Southwest Airlines flight from Manchester, N.H., to Washington, D.C., patriotic music greeted travelers as they boarded. During the scramble for seats, the chorus to Lee Greenwood's “God Bless the U.S.A.� streamed into the cabin. The gray-haired pilot, sporting a broad red, white and blue tie, stood at the door to the cockpit and grinned at each passenger. A number of female passengers adorned their lapels with heart-shaped brooches filled with red, white and blue rhinestones.

In the months since Sept. 11, the “emblem of the land we love� has become more than just something to salute. From donning T-shirts and high-end jewelry with patriotic slogans and insignia to flying flags from car antennas, citizens across the country have been showing their civic pride by wearing the nation's colors. This patriotic surge appears to have affected attitudes as well as accessories: According to a Gallup poll conducted in June 2002, 65 percent of respondents say that they are “extremely� proud to be American, up from 55 percent in January 2001.

Eager to reflect this positive national sentiment, many businesses rushed to include images of patriotic pride in their marketing campaigns. Some even developed products and services for the newly proud pounding hearts of Americans. Sears Portrait Studios, for example, introduced a new line of patriotic portrait greeting cards and backgrounds at its 1,000 stores nationwide in response to its customers' Fourth of July-like levels of interest in patriotic themes, according to spokeswoman Robyn Frankel.

But while Old Glory may have gained a certain amount of new popularity, the rush of warm feelings on the part of Americans toward the nation and its symbols has not translated into a rising tide of consumer support for companies that drape themselves in the flag. The results from two identical American Demographics/Ipsos-Reid polls of 1,000 adults (the first conducted between October 5 and 7, 2001, the second between June 21 and 23, 2002) show no such increase. In fact, consumer sentiment seems to be inching in the opposite direction. In October 2001, 52 percent of Americans said they thought businesses should focus “a great deal� or “quite a bit� on contributing to the nation's patriotic spirit through advertising. By June 2002, that figure had slipped to 50 percent. (Note: The chart, right, presents only those responding that businesses should focus “a great deal� on contributing to the nation's patriotic spirit through ads.)

Consumers today are similarly less likely to say that companies should support the war on terrorism (down 6 percentage points, from 58 percent in 2001) or to say that businesses should focus on developing strategies to ensure that their products or services are never used by terrorists (down 3 percentage points, from 74 percent in 2001).

To be sure, this slight decline still leaves about half of Americans in support of corporate patriotic behavior. But even a slight decline seems counterintuitive. If personal levels of patriotism gained strength over the past year, why wasn't there a parallel increase in support for businesses that affiliate themselves with patriotic word and deed?

Experts offer several possible explanations. One is that this data may be an early indicator that patriotism is starting to return to its natural level after a post-Sept. 11 surge, says Richard J. Stoll, professor of political science and associate dean of social science at Rice University in Houston. “The American people, and people in other countries as well, respond by rallying to their country in the immediate aftermath of a serious situation, whether it be 9/11 or a leader announcing that he is committing troops in a dangerous situation,� says Stoll. “However, this does not last forever. It does begin to decay.�

Indeed, the nationalistic fervor sparked by 9/11 appears to be decaying at a faster rate among the people least likely to hold patriotic attitudes in the first place. Prior to Sept. 11, young people were the least likely of all age groups to say that they had strong feelings of patriotism. A 1999 Gallup poll found that just 40 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 said they were patriotic, compared with 77 percent of people over the age of 55. So it's hardly surprising that in our survey, young Americans show an even sharper decline in support for businesses' patriotic involvement over the past year. In October 2001, 30 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 said that businesses should focus “a great deal� on contributing to the spirit of patriotism through advertising. By June 2002, that share fell to 24 percent. Similarly, the percentage of people in this age group who agree that companies should ensure that their products or services are never used by terrorists, and to say that businesses should contribute to the war on terror, also slid by more than 10 percentage points over the past year. Older consumers' support for business patriotism had more stability. (See chart, page 51)

The decrease in consumer support for business involvement in the war on terrorism may also have something to do with growing qualms about the way the war is being fought, says J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, professor of anthropology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. The Gallup Organization has found that the number of Americans who are concerned about civil rights issues relating to the war on terror has been increasing slightly throughout this year. “I don't think that it is coincidental that this apparent decline in public consumption of material or artifactual ‘patriotism’ appears to correlate to a rise in public criticism of perceived infringements of civil freedoms,� comments Kovats-Bernat. It also makes sense, then, that these qualms appear to have less of an effect on people who live in the regions where the attacks occured, the Northeast. While support for patriotic imagery in advertising slid in the rest of the nation, the share of consumers in the Northeast who say that companies should contribute to the spirit of patriotism in their advertisements “a great deal� climbed to 34 percent in 2002, from 26 percent in 2001, according to the American Demographics/Ipsos-Reid surveys.

It's also possible that the reason American support for business patriotism is not increasing is that consumers are becoming numb to flag-waving, says Timmons Roberts, professor of sociology at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. “The use of patriotism in advertising may begin to lose effectiveness because so many companies have been doing it so intensely since Sept. 11,� he says.

Many of the successful advertising campaigns that have used patriotic imagery have not succeeded on those images alone, says Ira Matathia, director of strategy at Euro RSCG MVMBS Partners, a New York City-based advertising agency whose clients include Intel, Nestlé and Schering-Plough. “What we're seeing in terms of ‘effective’ American branding has less to do with their overt presentation of patriotism and more to do with other elements, like price,� he says. As an example, Matathia points to GM's “Let's Keep America Rolling� campaign, which launched immediately after Sept. 11 and which, in addition to hailing the red, white and blue, plugged “0% financing� on car loans.

According to the American Demographics/Ipsos-Reid polls, consumers are now more interested in finding out whether the products they're buying are made in America: 69 percent of the respondents say that companies should focus a great deal or quite a bit on making it clear that their products are “made in America,� up from 64 percent in October 2001. Interestingly, this trend holds true even among the less patriotically inclined 18- to 34-year-olds; the percentage of this younger lot who think businesses should focus “a great deal� on touting their “made in America� wares increased to 40 percent in June from 32 percent in October.

A much smaller share of consumers will actually make a purchase because the product was made in America, reveals an online study of 1,000 Americans adults, conducted in May 2002 by Euro RSCG. However, the numbers have risen since 9/11: At least 7 percent of those polled by the agency say that they will “always buy American,� up from 4 percent in 2000. “Whether that is a sustainable trend or not, and whether it is related to post-Sept. 11 patriotism or a desire to contribute to an end to our economic doldrums, remains to be seen,� says Matathia. Marketers can add proper use of patriotic imagery to their list of uncertainties as they continue to slog through an ever-changing, unchartered post-9/11 world.

Changing the Corporate Color Guard?

The contours of the patriotic consumer have not changed over the past year. Women are still more likely to be patriotic than men, older people are more patriotic than the young, and the retired and less educated are the most likely to be influenced by patriotic ads. Overall, the percentage of Americans who believe businesses should focus “a great deal� on creating patriotic messages has remained stable, with the exception of the Northeast, the scene of the terrorist attacks. The unemployed are also more likely to support patriotic spirit in advertising, perhaps because some lost their jobs as a result of the terrorists' actions.


OCt.-01 JUNE-02
Total 29% 29%
Male 28% 28%
Female 31% 31%
18-34 30% 24%
35-54 26% 30%
55+ 33% 35%
Household income
Under $25K 33% 32%
$25k-$50K 31% 33%
$50k+ 25% 26%
Northeast 26% 34%
Midwest 27% 30%
South 33% 30%
West 29% 24%
High school or less 39% 33%
Some college 29% 31%
College degree 19% 24%
Employment Status
Full-time 29% 28%
Part-time 31% 23%
Not employed 25% 30%
Retired 31% 35%
Source: American Demographics/Ipsos-Reid

Mixed Messages

Younger people are the most likely to have decreased their support of business patriotism over the past year, while older consumer attitudes are more likely to have remained stable. The one exception: A larger share of younger consumers say they'd like to know if the products they're buying are made in America.


AGE 18-34 AGE 55+
OCT.-01 JUNE-02 OCT.-01 JUNE-02
Devoting time, money and expertise to the war on terror 38% 24% 36% 35%
Developing strategies to ensure that their products and services are never used by terrorists 54% 49% 59% 51%
Contributing to the spirit of patriotism in their advertisements 30% 24% 33% 35%
Making it clear which products they sell are made in America 32% 40% 52% 50%
Source: American Demographics/Ipsos-Reid

Dr. Joyce Brothers

Psychologist and author

“As Americans, we thought that our oceans would save us from bad things, but we know now that they can't. On Sept. 11 we lost our freedom from fear, and now we will always carry with us some of that fear. Initially, we thought that if we stayed home we'd be safe, but we've since realized that there is nowhere we can truly feel safe and where we don't have to worry. I think we'll always be looking over our shoulders more than we did before.

Still, as more and more predictions about future terrorist attacks don't come true, we will eventually return to our set point of happiness and the way we lived our daily lives before the attacks. We are already letting joy come back into our lives. We celebrate weddings and anniversaries and birthdays. Of course, we may cut down a bit on the lavishness of weddings and such, but we're not cutting them out altogether.

Children are dealing with the events of the past year by becoming seriously patriotic. They are holding on to patriotism as a bulwark more than other generations have done. Generations before were building bunkers to protect against nuclear bombs. These kids don't have that sort of security blanket, and the thought that our government will make everything all right is what they use to make them feel safe. This generation very much believes that our president will save us no matter what.�

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