For better or worse, mass media is unchanged

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Each time I enter my office building-a squat, 20-story structure that's never made a targets list-I have to flash an I.D. card. At the airport, I sometimes have to remove my shoes. At the U.S. Open, when I'm gullible enough to pay $70 for a shirt, it's handed over in a clear plastic bag-presumably so the contents are visible to security and not (as I secretly suspect) to make me a target of ridicule for those who steered clear of the souvenir stand.

Beyond those things, I'd be hard-pressed to identify ways in which the routines of my life have been altered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a view I'm sure is shared by millions of people. Still, the media will overflow this week with reports that proclaim how we as a nation have been forever changed.

The death toll was horrifying, the loss of the Twin Towers a permanent scar. The fear of future attacks never truly dissipates, and the fighting in far-off places goes on. But I warned a year ago that marketers who presumed a permanent change in the U.S. consumer mindset and made decisions based on those presumptions would find it a costly mistake.

It may have been difficult to believe in the immediate aftermath that ordinary life would re-assert itself, but of course it did. Most of the predictions made by pop-culture pundits in the weeks after the attacks were quickly disproved. (Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter will perhaps never live down his ironic declaration of the death of irony.)

It's even more absurd now to believe that all priorities have-or should have-been realigned, and that every action, however unrelated, should be viewed (and judged) through a Sept. 11 filter. When the baseball strike seemed likely, one fan was quoted in a newspaper saying he couldn't believe owners and players would fight over money "after all those people died on Sept. 11." What in the world is the connection?

Most disappointed are those who had hoped that the dumbing-down of popular culture would be reversed, or at least that the rate of decline would slow. If anything, it has accelerated. Anna Nicole Smith's disgusting reality show scores major ratings. On the radio, shock jocks encourage people to have sex in a church while their mainstream sponsor laughs it up in the studio. Those who criticize are labeled prigs.

In his latest "Any Wednesday" memo to employees, DDB Worldwide Chairman Keith Reinhard quotes agency founder Bill Bernbach on the responsibility creators of entertainment and advertising have to their audiences. "All of us who professionally use the mass media are shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can lift it onto a higher level."

It's clear which path many in the mass media have chosen. They were on it before Sept. 11, and they haven't veered from it since. Those who believed that they would, or that consumers would reject such fare, were wrong.

Still, from the broad perspective, 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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