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  Wrapping Ourselves in the Flag: Introduction  



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, 5)

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)

-Joe Citizen

© Joe Citizen unless otherwise noted | reproduction for non-profit uses only |

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Photo Notes:

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.


Introduction Notes and Links:

(1) At 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.”
Same link as above

(3) The 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:

(4) Credit 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.

(5) Shopping and squandering
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.

(6) Travel Industry Association of America Ad Features Bush
Ad can be viewed from this link (requires RealPlayer)

(7) Bush to Appear in Television Ad Promoting U.S. Travel
The Travel Industry Association of America hopes the president can lure domestic and international travelers.

(8) Post-Sept. 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?

(12) Retailers 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.

(13) Adbusters Creative Resistance

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 back.