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The Return of the...

Battle of Symbols

The Return of Singing Toilet Bowls

"If advertising is an emblem of capitalism and self-indulgent prosperity, and if capitalism and self-indulgent prosperity are part of what many Middle Easterners detest us for, does advertising have any hope of ameliorating things? Might it acutally exacerbate things? Glossy, air-dropped brochures with hilarious Arabic puns aren’t going to cut it."

Rod Kilpatrick
Advertising Executive

"What would they (Americans) be selling? The American soul? What is the American soul – freedom, justice and a new Frigidaire? How could they sell consumerism to Islam?"

Lyndy Stout, Editor
Shots Magazine

"Why, I ask, isn’t it possible that advertising as a whole is a fantastic fraud, presenting an image of America taken seriously by no one, least of all by the advertising men who create it?"

David Riesman
The Lonely Crowd

Ground Zero of the terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan was close to ground zero of the American advertising industry just a few blocks north on Madison Avenue. While it was not literally hit, advertising was hit in a figurative way with a ripple effect extending far beyond New York City. This was inevitable for the advertising industry, the key symbol of American symbol-making power in a battle largely caused by symbols and about symbols.

The immediate effect was similar to the response from the entertainment industry - some advertisements were deemed inappropriate and media schedules were pulled. This had a big impact on broadcasting and magazine publishing largely sponsored by the advertising industry. Faced with gaps in program sponsorship, one of the major effects was a large drop in the networks’ prices for commercial time.

Wayne Friedman, Los Angeles bureau chief for leading industry publication Advertising Age, said in the September 25th New York Times the attacks forced agencies to rethink product media plans. And, in the same issue of the Times, advertising writer Stuart Elliott noted "Sitcoms may seem too trivial to viewers" while serious shows too much a reminder of the tragedy. Elliott observed there might be problems with terrorist-themed episodes of shows like The Agency, 24 and Alias referring to new dramas on CBS, Fox Broadcasting and ABC, respectively. Coming close after the events, though, most of this was just speculation and Elliott suggested that these types of shows might be accepted after all. "But in the patriotic fervor we’re in, maybe if they catch the bad guys, that’s something we’d want to see."

In the midst of this late September 2001 speculation, O. Burtch Drake, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, sent an advisory letter to the association’s members. "Advertising can and will play a crucial role in moving the country forward as we continue our recovery" Burtch said in his letter. At the same time, the association "is aware of the gravity of the current situation and the mood of the nation." In light of this, he urged member agencies and their marketer clients "to exercise sensitivity as they began to resume advertising."

The letter was believed to be the first in the 94 year old history of the association. Burtch told The New York Times’ Stuart Elliott in a telephone interview "There’s certainly been nothing like this in my experience. It seems different from everything else." Yet Burtch noted to Elliott, that advertising "is how the economy works, and how the media can afford to do what they do." While "ultimately it’s the agency acting on behalf of the client to determine the appropriateness of advertising material in print and on the air, the media need to have a more heightened awareness, too."

But by early October, Elliott reported in the October 1st edition of The New York Times that the advertising economy had returned to business as usual. It was "spurred in large part by the requests of President Bush and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that regular routines should resume - especially those that would help keep the national and New York economies from faltering further." One of Elliott’s readers wrote suggesting "Normal advertising messages could help aid in the mental recovery."

Even so, questions of taste and tone lingered on because the nation, and its symbol-making machine of advertising, was in new and uncharted territory. In the October 1st Times article, Stuart Elliott expressed well a type of current paradox of this uncharted territory. On one hand, there was the desire to return to the normalcy of a world full of the persuasive symbols. The view expressed by Elliott’s reader above. On the other hand, there was the growing suspicion that a world filled with singing and dancing symbols was perhaps not all that normal after all.

Elliott expressed this paradox well in his October 1st Times article. "On one hand, pitches can be perceived as a welcome reassurance of normality and even a momentary escape from reality. On the other hand, are singing toilet bowls, hard-selling infomercials and gross-out humor appropriate at this moment?"

But American consumers seemed to be lining up with singing toilet bowls. In an October 19th column of Stuart Elliott’s in the New York Times, Joseph Plummer, director of global brand strategy at the World Group in New York, is quoted as being surprised at "the requests by consumers to see advertising again" after the initial coverage of the attacks ran without commercials on many TV networks and without adjacent advertisements in many magazines and newspapers. "They aren’t always kind to advertising,’ Mr. Plummer said of consumers, "but they said that if advertising came back, it would be one more sign to them of trying to get on with it."

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim