Advertising and the September 11th Disaster
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Roundtable on Advertising and the September 11th Disaster
Moderator’s Introductory Remarks Steve Barnett

We find ourselves in a world where the relevant phrase is time-out-of-joint rather than business-as-usual. The terrorist attacks of September 11th have profoundly altered the pacing and priorities of our lives. And communication content and styles will also inevitably change. In these early days, our panel can only sense directions, but even tentative insights can help shape the first few weeks and months of emerging content and style shifts, as well as provide a scaffolding for discussions at advertising agencies, consumer companies, and learning institutions.

Three areas that the panel will discuss, in no order or priority, are:

  • • Broad frameworks for thinking about and creating consumer communications

  • • Economic recession and its impact on consumer motivations and receptivity

  • • Altered content for advertising messages and themes

Frameworks

We are rethinking facile assumptions about globalization of American pop culture and global economic integration. All boats have not risen; globalized capitalism leaves huge pockets of poverty and despair. Less than 3% of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are affluent or middle class, and the gap between the middle class and the rest is large. Most Islamic countries are experiencing a youth boom - over 60% of Egyptians are under age 16. Add governments that are for the most part elitist and corrupt, creating a perfect mix for fundamentalist ideology.

How do we advertise global brands in this new world of resistance to Western values and disbelief that participating in global markets under our rules will create rapid development? How do we justify and extol our high consumption lifestyles as they begin to appear frivolous in the face of intractable human poverty? How will our own values be reshaped by these global seismic shifts?

Recession

Economic doldrums predate September 11th; many economists thought a recession had already developed by the end of the summer. But now that recession has deepened and taken on a stronger international character. As the gap between consumer and citizen narrows, hyper-consumption retreats in favor of limited, more need-based, purchasing. The commoditized nature of many current products becomes more apparent and competitive pricing more central. Small luxuries can assume more importance in this climate - buying super-premium ice cream is one way to keep fear at bay, at least temporarily.

How will consumer caution in the face of economic and military uncertainty affect advertising? Will brand maintenance, not brand building, be the rule? How will sectors especially hard hit, like transportation and consumer durables, retrench? How to appeal to consumers who resist big ticket items?

Content

Before September 11th, most communications were based on qualitative consumer insights plus quantitative predictive analytics. Now, notions of emergent uncertainty (tracking and monitoring based on complexity theory replacing statistical probabilities) and consumer ambiguity are supplementing or at least complementing prior techniques. Brands as a shorthand have already impacted individual presentation (“brand yourself”) and nation-state propaganda (Foreign Affairs article in the October issue, “The Rise of the Brand State”). Bin Laden has, so far anyway, powerfully branded himself in communications released through Arab television. Some post-September 11th ads have wrapped themselves in the flag and Americana (Miller Beer and the Air Force - “Freedom Forever”), while others try to stimulate consumption as patriotism through incentives (0% financing initiated by GM, now joined by most auto companies). At the same time, the 90s American valorization of business as embodying core values and aspirations is fraying as companies are quick to lay off workers while retaining executive salaries and perks.

Will brands have to take on symbols of concern and altruism? Will the tropes of irony and sarcasm be muted in favor of sentimentality and more “traditional” values? Will consumers accept brands as appropriate vessels for patriotic symbols? How will brands play into a sense of national “solidarity?” What does “return to normal life” really imply?

These broad issues and questions are meant to provide a backdrop for what I know will be a free-wheeling and...