Commercial Break

By Sept. 15 of last year, many self-proclaimed industry pundits declared that advertising as we knew it was dead. Irony, they insisted, would be forever inappropriate. Sophomoric humor and tasteless sight gags would never again be tolerated by an irrevocably somber public.

Summing up the weeks that followed, we noted in our pages that “cynicism, which had been the prevaling sentiment in advertising in recent years, was replaced by sincerity.”

At least temporarily.

For a while, we were up to our storyboards in flags, heroic firemen and feel-good themes. This may have initially come from a desire to balance commerce and compassion, but it quickly degenerated into attempts to capitalize on the nation’s amped-up patriotism.

What’s that if not cynical?

What really stands out about our business 12 months later is how little advertising has fundamentally changed. Necessity was the mother of a quick return to convention.

It is the economy, not the events of Sept. 11, that has had a lasting impact on the industry we cover. (Many CEOs got to blame Sept. 11 for their corporate troubles, but that day simply hastened the arrival of the inevitable.)

Now, as we approach the first anniversary, there is much talk over who is and who isn’t advertising on Wednesday. When Ford said it would run commercials, it made headlines. Many other major advertisers said they would pass.

As we canvassed agencies across the country, discretion was certainly the watchword, with a solid plurality of clients apparently deciding to opt out from advertising on Sept. 11, at least on television.

The first issue of Adweek after the attacks carried the cover headline: “When the Selling Stopped.” I thought the networks and advertisers were right to step aside last year. But I was surprised to see the long list of companies that are skipping commercials this 9/11.

I realize that many people think advertisers are doing the right thing. My news editor, for one, who argues that a tribute to fallen heroes interrupted by that dental-rinse commercial is wrong, no matter how sensitively it’s handled. His point is that some things hit too close for any advertising to address.

Sure, there should be tributes and memorials, and certain paid advertising would not be appropriate during such coverage. But I agree with Jeff Goodby, who last week told me, “I don’t believe it’s disrespectful to carry on on that day. To disrupt our daily lives is a form of defeat.”

We’re far enough along in our healing process to tolerate humor that would have been unthinkable even six months ago. Last Wednesday, David Letterman served up an “Afghani Idol” segment and endless Osama Bin Laden/Saddam Hussein jokes. The audience ate it up.

What is inappropriate or tasteless is settling comfortably back into its old pattern. And that, indeed, is a sign of healing. Responsible advertising on Sept. 11 is as well.

Which doesn’t mean, sad to say, that advertisers won’t try to take it a step further. How long will it be before we have Sept. 11 Day discounts or white sales at Macy’s?

Don’t laugh. You’ve heard of Memorial Day sales, right?