Post-Katrina Survivor's Guilt Is False Predictor of the Future

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It was there in the corporate box at the U.S. Open, as tennis fans sipped summer cocktails and watched a shimmering Venus Williams succumb to Kim Clijsters. It was there at the Bryant Park Grill in midtown Manhattan, distorting the plate-glass view of Fashion Week's white tents. It was there at Chelsea Piers on the city's West Side, where the Highlander remained firmly tied to the dock, the Forbes brothers donating money that would have been spent on a cruise around the island to hurricane-relief efforts.

"It" was a certain survivor's guilt-intensified by the proximity of the 9/11 anniversary-over the resumption of daily routines. And it was ridiculous.

As happened after 9/11, there was too much meaningless talk last week about how we as a country have been forever changed by the devastating path Katrina tore through New Orleans and its neighbors. Companies apologized for, and canceled, parties, issued pathetic press releases on their donations. There was speculation that consumers would stop consuming, advertisers would become more sensitive, entertainment fare more serious.

Oh, please. I was as fixated and moved by the images and stories out of New Orleans as the next person, felt as helpless and distant, as angry as many about the inadequate government response to human suffering. I'm not a cynic on this topic at all. But I am a realist. And I find pronouncements about how life will never be the same as frustrating as FEMA's feebleness.

Just weeks after Sept. 11, Advertising Age hosted a round-table discussion on the aftermath of the terrorist attacks-on media, consumers and the economy. Martha Nelson, one of the sharpest editors in the business, then with In Style and now with People, expressed a view that matched my own when she said, simply and honestly, "ordinary life will reassert itself."

And thank God, or whomever you want to thank, for that.

A year after 9/11, I wrote that besides flashing an I.D. card at my building's entrance, taking off my shoes in the airport and getting my U.S. Open souvenir-stand purchases in a clear plastic bag (presumably so its contents were visible to security and not to expose me to ridicule for paying $70 for a sweatshirt), I would have been "hard-pressed to identify ways in which the routines of my life have been altered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001." That was in contrast to predictions on the death of irony and an end to the dumbing-down of American culture. (How's that one coming?)

"I warned a year ago," I wrote back in September 2002, "that marketers who presumed a permanent change in the U.S. consumer mind-set and made decisions based on those presumptions would find it a costly mistake. ... It's even more absurd now to believe that all priorities have-or should have-been realigned, that every action, however unrelated, should be viewed (and judged) through a Sept. 11 filter."

Yet here we are doing the same thing in Katrina's wake.

There are short-term steps marketers and others can take to avoid appearing insensitive. There will be some long-term impact as well, but it won't be immediately evident. Of course our world is a different place than it was four years ago, but not in ways that could have been accurately predicted, or that strategies could have been set on, right after the World Trade Center attacks. In any case, it has nothing to do with whether we enjoy watching sports or laughing at sophomoric movies.

That 2002 column closed with words worth repeating: "The fact that we haven't changed all that much is a good thing. It proves the resilience of our nation and its people. Marketers can always feel free to make decisions on that presumption."

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