Fault Lines

I am responsible for everything that’s wrong with the world. Global warming? I did it. Crime? My bad. My son’s decision to spike his hair? Got to be me.

OK, George W. Bush is Florida’s fault, but you can saddle me with just about everything else. Go ahead. I’m used to it. I’m an ex-husband.

The fact is, we live in a culture with a hyperactive blame reflex.

Last month, for example, I participated in a panel discussion held by the Los Angeles chapter of the Public Relations Society of America on the rise and fall of high-tech. All the PR people there blamed themselves for what went wrong. Now granted, these guys are constantly being used as human shields by their clients (that’s probably where they got the nickname “flaks”). So, taking a bullet for someone else who actually deserves it—even clients who left you holding the bag for three months’ worth of high-tech consulting fees—is probably an instinctive response.

Still, I thought it was a fruit less mea culpa. Who cares who’s to blame? The more relevant question is, what do we do about it?

But that question is often secondary. When something goes wrong, we first find someone or something to blame. Someone’s gotta take the fall. And when they do, we all feel better and go screw something else up.

The blame game is played often, and adroitly, by politicians. Trigger-happy kids? Blame Doom or the movies. Patients’ bill of rights? Blame Jim Jeffords.

As society’s mirror, advertising also reflects our collective need to absolve ourselves of responsibil ity. Stains on your sweater? Blame the bleach. Can’t get a date? It’s your bad breath. Don’t have a job? Blame the fact that you’re too lazy to log on to Monster.com.

And it’s a tradition among media researchers to blame Nielsen for just about any damn thing.

Of course, ad people seem to enjoy taking the blame almost as much as assigning it. I suspect the reason why the ad industry dives headfirst into so many extensive pro-bono efforts has something to do with self-loathing—the charity being an antidote to the feeling among copywriters, art directors and media planners that they’re somehow to blame for Americans’ unending overconsumption.

Even the upfront, usually the most unapologetic part of the Great Ad Circus, is getting into the blame game. The networks are loudly berating each other for this year’s sales shortfall. CBS’ Mel Karmazin is being fingered by buyers and sellers for refusing to take responsibility for his you-don’t-pay-we-don’t-play stance. His own salespeople are blaming him for putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

I had a conversation last week with the head of a top media agency who marveled at this development. The networks have never broken ranks like this before, let alone during the upfront. Then again, the blame game has never been played with such ferocity—in politics, advertising, the media or society at large.

Everyone’s getting in on the act.

And that global warming thing? It’s my ex-wife’s fault.