Shopping our Way to Freedom
After the attacks of September 11th, the
American landscape was stunningly transformed into a sea of flags,
which appeared almost overnight on lapels, in windows, from rooftops,
on cars, on clothing and in advertising. For people of Middle
Eastern descent, the prominent display of the American flag became
a necessary prerequisite to show strangers that they were not
the enemy. For quite different reasons, many Puerto Ricans perhaps
for the first time began to favor the American flag over the
Puerto Rican flag as the primary symbol of their national pride.
And in residential neighborhoods throughout the country, patriotic
displays were so prominent that it almost seemed that neighbors
were in a competition, reminiscent of contests over holiday decorations,
to create ever more elaborate and heartfelt patriotic displays.
While the post 9/11 public display of patriotic
fervor took on many forms and involved a variety of motivations,
it overwhelmingly stood as a powerful testimonial to America’s
national unity. And in its shear magnitude, it may have even
outdone the public display of patriotism exhibited during WWII.
During WWII, ordinary Americans were asked
to make daily sacrifices to help insure America’s war effort.
In contrast, instead of asking citizens to make any sacrifices
for the ‘war on terror’, Bush simply told the public
that they could best serve America by their "continued participation
and confidence in the American economy"; that the most important
thing for ordinary Americans to do was to resume shopping. Bush
told us to “Get on board. Do your business around the country… Get
down to Disney World in Florida.” (Notes 1, 2, 3, 4,
Bush felt so strongly about supporting the
travel industry that he even lent his image to an ad campaign
for the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) which urged
Americans to travel as a way to express their confidence in America’s
determination. Additionally, in recognition of how important
wartime advertising was in directing the public’s attention,
the Bush administration worked with the Ad Council to create
advertisements to help influence public attitudes and behaviors
in support of the war. According to Peggy Conlon, the Ad Council’s
President, "Even more than World War II, this war is a war
of confidence. The whole point (is) reaching people and giving
them things to do… giving a sense of collective patriotism
is very important." (Notes 6, 7, 8, 9)
Because Bush offered no guidance on the
types of consumerism that would be most beneficial to the ‘war
effort’, the mass consumption of patriotic paraphernalia
resulted in numerous oddities and ironies. For example, the prominent
display of American flags on giant SUVs seemed inherently contradictory
because such gas guzzling vehicles inevitably increased America’s
dependence on Middle Eastern oil; something that most people
would agree was inherently bad for the country. Products emblazoned
with the American flag but wholly designed and produced in other
countries obviously did not contribute as much to America’s
economy as they would have if they were produced domestically.
But perhaps the most unseemly use of patriotic imagery was the
2003 Easter baskets sold at K-marts and Walgreens which along
with jelly beans and chocolate eggs also contained U.S. military
action figures and thereby strangely juxtaposed a religious holiday
celebrating Jesus, who told his followers to “turn the
other cheek”, with toys that glorified war. (Notes
10, 11, 12)
The problem with the unbridled use of patriotic
themes in marketing and advertising is that when this symbolism
becomes ubiquitous, the original intent of the message inevitably
becomes confused and diluted. When every corporation starts using
the flag in its advertising, the patriotic symbolism becomes
just another meaningless element of one more gratuitous ad campaign.
When the flag is attached as a symbol to otherwise completely
unrelated products, the combination starts to look more like
a parody done in bad taste, than it does an expression of true
patriotism. The danger here is that when the symbolism of the
flag starts to completely lose its meaning, it leaves the door
open for it to be redefined by whatever market force or political
strategy is prevalent at the time.
Under these circumstances, patriotic symbolism
can be redefined to mean almost anything from ‘it’s
time to buy more chocolates’ to ‘it’s time
to invade another country’ with both meanings being almost
equal in their gravitas for motivating a cheer of ‘God
Bless America’ and promoting the unquestioning allegiance
for the decisions of our nation’s leaders. And once this
happens, it becomes easy for us all to find ourselves adrift
in a sea of symbolism devoid of its original meaning with the
huge potential to be swept away in a tide of blind nationalism.
For the good of the nation, now is the perfect time to start
rowing. (Note 12, 13)
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When I started doing this photo study, I
was surprised that patriotic symbolism was not applied to certain
products like condoms, snack foods and alcoholic beverages and
I attributed this to the thoughtful self-censorship of marketers
who did not want to appear to cross over the line of bad taste.
Since then I have encountered my first patriotic beer and a full
line of Little Debbie patriotic snack cakes, which hit the supermarkets
just in time for the Fourth of July. Can a red, white and blue
condom be far behind?
Most of the categories of this photo study
should be obvious from their titles. The “Hall of Fame” entries
were determined either because they stood out as unusual, in
bad taste or simply because they represented the blatant attempts
of large corporations to attach themselves to the patriotic bandwagon.
Notes and Links:
O'Hare, President Says "Get On Board"
Remarks by the President to Airline Employees at O'Hare International Airport
(2) In the speech noted above, Bush also
said “one of the great goals of this nation's war is to
restore public confidence in the airline industry.”
link as above
Bush Speech: How to Rally a Nation
And for God's sake keep shopping — "I ask your continued participation
and confidence in the American economy" — and keep praying:
Cards in Hand, We Will Prevail
Shop, shop, shop. Or so go the pleas of George W., Tony Blair, and leaders
of other industrialized nations whose citizens can afford to do so.
Several Bay Area readers brought me up to speed on the "Open For Business" posters--turns
out they're the brainchild of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.
Industry Association of America Ad Features Bush
Ad can be viewed from this link (requires RealPlayer)
to Appear in Television Ad Promoting U.S. Travel
The Travel Industry Association of America hopes the president can lure domestic
and international travelers.
11 Ads Draw on Patriotic Sentiment of World War II
The White House is working with the Advertising Council to develop messages
that will "inspire, inform and involve all Americans," said Susan
Jacobsen, a vice president with the organization.
(9) After 9/11, even without the additional
inducements produced by the TIA or the Ad Council, Americans
were already overly eager to express their collective patriotism
in the products and services that they consumed. Add to this
the fact that the American flag, because of its evocative qualities,
as a national symbol was already a favorite with many marketers
and advertisers. As a result, aided by Bush’s call for
the public to keep spending, this created a veritable feeding
frenzy for patriotic gear.
(10) While consumers probably often truly
believed that consuming patriotic products was a good thing simply
because it expressed their American team spirit and as a bonus
helped to boost America’s economy, the motivations of the
advertisers and marketers responsible for the proliferation of
patriotic products themselves seem to have been more wholly self-interested.
One must only ask whether marketers and advertisers would have
felt so patriotic if the addition of patriotic imagery to their
products would have hurt their bottom line. Similarly, it would
be a rare corporation that would give up its offshore tax havens
or return its manufacturing base to the U.S. simply for the good
of the country.
(11) The owner of a flag emblazoned SUV
could argue that one of the most important things about America
was the freedom to buy such gas guzzling oversized vehicles.
The argument goes: Take away our SUVs and the terrorists have
won. And after all aren’t the SUV owners doing more for
the ‘war effort’ than the owners of fuel-efficient
vehicles who are spending less money?
Put All Their Grenades in One Basket: Full Metal Bonnet
National retailers like Kmart and Walgreens have stocked their shelves with
baskets in which the traditional chocolate rabbit centerpiece has been displaced
by plastic military action figures and their make-believe lethal paraphernalia.
In the coming months a black spot will pop up everywhere . . . on store windows
and newspaper boxes, on gas pumps and supermarket shelves. Open a magazine
or newspaper - it's there. It's on TV. It stains the logos and smears the nerve
centers of the world's biggest, dirtiest corporations.
This is the mark of the people who …who pledge to take their country