FreshMeat #9: Got Zeitgeist?
FreshMeat #9 from Steve Portigal
(__) (oo) Fresh \\/ Meat
Cultural stories of the day — more than meets the eye
Just the other day a colleague asked me what I thought
about the near-term effects of the Current Situation
on advertising and marketing messages.
I replied that I had observed a complex, contradictory,
and divergent set of cultural themes going by, and it
didn’t seem to be as simple as the articles in the Times
and others were making it out to be. We explored some
specifics, and so I’m sharing my next rev of those
Just the fact that terms like “Current Situation” are
appearing on blogs (that term is defined here)
points to the complexity of the issue – there is no name
for it. Of course, the choice of phrasing here brings
to mind the media coverage in the film “Starship
Troopers,” or a short story by Philip K. Dick.
I think we want to believe that it is an easily understood
series of events, perhaps a monolithic notion, but there
are a range of contradictory cultural stories being told.
As cultural stories, all are equally “true” and I’ll review
some here more as exploration than as social crit.
Let’s look at “issue conflation” – what exactly are we
concerned about now? About two weeks ago there were a
number of high profile “tribute” concerts:
* Allegiance of Neighbors, a benefit performance for
New Jersey victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks,
featuring Springsteen, Joan Jett, Jon Bon Jovi
* United We Stand, Michael Jackson’s concert in Washington
for the Red Cross and other charities
* The Country Freedom Concert, in Nashville, with Trisha
Yearwood, for the Salvation Army relief effort
* Paul McCartney’s “Concert for New York City” paid
tribute in content to the firefighters, police and
rescue workers of 9/11, but where the money is going is
less clear (to me)
* Neil Young’s Bridge Benefit – the 15th year running,
this concert raises money for a local school to help
special needs children. Yet the musicians dealt with
issues of loss, peace, war, America, hope, freedom,
* Music Without Borders, held in Toronto, featuring the top
Canadian performers, to benefit the United Nations Donor
Alert, detailed the plight of Afghan refugees between
Who are the victims we are helping out? Americans? Afghans?
Firefighters? The overriding story is “Donate! Help out!
Stand up!” – but is it to reward bravery, to protect the
innocent, to care for the survivors? Already, it becomes a
bit more complex.
Another “issue conflation” appears when business people
speak of the economy, they can be heard referring to
“the downturn and September 11th” in one breath, speaking
out one indivisible atom, presenting them as one unit, one
factor in the business climate.
Another theme is what I call “transnationalism” – the
American flag being adopted by other nations as a symbol of
their support for the U.S. In Canada, long vigilant to
avoid being perceived as Americans, the American flag was
flown across the country, and now appears on buses (for
example) with the words “United We Stand.” This would not
have happened before 9/11. (Nor would it have happened
without an increase in Canadian nationalism that has been
percolating for a couple of years, and in case you think
this isn’t relevant to business, that particular trend was
capitalized on, if not generated by, a brewery).
“Back or forth:” When people speak of their hopes, or
expectations for an unclear and perhaps scary future, they
speak of two different things – moving forward, and moving
backwards. Some express a yearning to return to what was
once good and simple, before our society lost sight of what
was important, moving to the inevitable events of 9/11.
Others describe moving ahead, getting past the tragedy, to
find a new place ahead where we’ve learned some lessons,
and things are good and simple, and the focus is on what is
important. The endpoint is the same, but the perceived
direction is opposite. Advertisers can use Norman Rockwell
to tap into one of these themes, but it doesn’t come close
to addressing the other theme.
“Security first:” Apparently, both gun sales and enrollment
in self-defense classes are on the rise. It’d doubtful that
anyone expects to protect themselves from anthrax or
hijacking in this manner, but general feelings about
security are leading people to respond. Even issues around
computer security seem to be receiving more media
attention, somehow under the same general concern.
“The elasticity of inconvenience:” In the first days
following the resumption of air travel, the media showed
the effect of new security measures on travelers, each of
whom said something to the effect that it didn’t matter how
long it took, as long as they were safe. In the following
weeks, every time there were new measures put in place, the
news would do a similar story, but the tone began to shift,
as people began to imply their frustration with losing
their nail clippers, and having to wait at the same time.
The news stories still would feature the disclaimer about
preferring safety to inconvenience, but something had
changed – the travelers mouthed the statement as some
truism that they felt socially obligated to say. It now has
the same flavor as the Jerry Seinfeld “not that there’s
anything wrong with that!” disclaimer that must be said
quickly whenever someone is described as gay.
“Symbol devaluation:” American flags are so in-demand that
companies can’t make enough of them, one of the greatest
memes of the last little while. Millions of individuals
seeking to announce…something…with the flag. Then a
week later, NBC has changed their logo (appearing in the
bottom right corner of every program) to a red, white, and
blue version. Local auto dealers cover their showrooms with
red, white, and blue balloons. Are they doing what they can
to help out, or are they cashing in on a crisis? Or both?
Further to this, cars began to sprout antenna flags. What
happens when a car with a flag on it cuts you off in
traffic? Or the driver yells something angry or impatient
at a pedestrian, the flag whipping in the breeze and they
speed away? What does the act of posting a flag imply about
neighborliness, kindness, or brotherhood? Should it be any
different than it was?
Other stories which point to some complex and contradictory
experiences and perspectives:
* Bill Maher censured for saying that the terrorists
weren’t cowards (and that firing missiles from far away,
as the U.S. does, is cowardly)
* Public opinion polls suggest U.S. citizens willing to
surrender privacy rights in order to prevent future
* University of British Columbia professor Sumera Thobani
saying that the history of U.S. foreign policy is “soaked
with blood” and facing extreme criticism, and pockets of
support for either her opinion, or her right to express
* The Canadian government moves to override the patent on
Bayer’s anti-anthrax drug Cipro
* Increasing enrollment in Arabic language classes
In each of these, some basic principles that our cultures
assume are fixed and permanent are being questioned. And
for each, there are responses, columns, ads from the ACLU,
debates, etc. But issues are more complex than before, new
thoughts are being voiced, and old beliefs are being
Again, these are cultural stories. They appear in the
media, at dinner parties, in email, around the photocopier
at work, etc. They are all happening simultaneously, and
we’re all participating to some extent in each of them. And
obviously, it’s all far more complex than this space would
allow for, but the goal here is to at least point to some
of the themes, to illustrate the complexity, and to provide
some food for thought.
An updated version of this article was published in LiNE Zine
Update: ‘Air rage’ is back
By JESSICA WEHRMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
January 14, 2002
– In the months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, airline travel was primarily populated with placid, patient customers who braved long lines, applauded flight attendants and, on a few flights, burst into “God Bless America.”
Months later, most passengers are still patient, despite a few muttered complaints at security. But in a handful of cases, the bad behavior – also dubbed “air rage” is back – and it has led to arrests.
Most recently, an airline pilot was arrested after making what authorities called “inappropriate” comments at an airport security checkpoint. Elwood Menear, 46, a US Airways pilot, was released from jail Monday after being charged with making terrorist-like threats and disorderly conduct. Officials would not give specifics on the comments.