We know that the world was transformed on Sept. 11, but how about an example of an immediate cultural sea change? Consider David Letterman's return to the airwaves six days after the attack.
Dave, after all, is the irony king, the man who exploits his mother's birth day as a setup for a comedy bit, the guy who makes relentless fun of the W. and Rudy Giuliani, and uses Dan Rather's loopy election-coverage Texasisms night after night as Top 10-list fodder. But the night Dave came back, he sat at his desk, talked about the disaster, thanked our president, raved about Giuliani and cried. While holding Dan Rather's hand. Because Dan was also crying.
I use Dave's new behavior as an example since it was his signature comedy stylings—the stupid pet and human tricks, the gifts of canned ham, the throwing of watermelons off tall buildings—that inspired thousands of black-humored TV commercials, some funny, some not so funny.
Obviously, irony is not a good response to catastrophe. As a result, I think we're in for some major earnestness, in TV programming and advertising. But, please, don't over react and feel that everything has to look like multicultural wall paper with doves flying and Enya singing. The conscience-heavy lyrics of U2 seem appropriate, but I fear we're going to have to set a limit on how many major advertisers can use the group for background music.
Sincerity can have some unexpected effects. Who knew that gray-haired, ponytailed draft dodgers from the '60s would be draping Old Glory off their balconies? Here in New York, the city is blooming with flags—hanging from residences, from backpacks, on dogs and old ladies' shopping carts. Patriotism is one way to get the emotion out. The Stars and Stripes gives people hope in the midst of so much agony burn out. Mostly, it helps us feel a sense of unity, and that sense of solidarity—and selflessness—is the only powerful and hopeful thing to come out of this disaster.
Given this sea change, I can't think of an advertising campaign that seems more off-target today than the one the U.S. Army adopted to great fanfare in January. That would be "An Army of one." Not that the old World War II "band of brothers" glory-war thing is the right tone for now, and the looking-out-for-No.-1 message isn't exactly a revolution from the 20-year-old "Be all you can be." Still, the message seems truly at odds with what's now a coming-together, crying, caring culture. I imagined conference tables filled with Army and Leo Burnett execs figuring out a quick exit strategy.
Wrong. A Burnett spokesman told me that not only are there no plans to change it but that, if anything, the Army might "put more money behind it." I guess I gasped audibly, and he told me to go to the goarmy.com Web site and educate myself, so I could "get it."
After going on virtual tours of the Fort Knox "clubhouse, restaurant and mini -mall" and watching "Web isodes" documenting the basic training of six recruits, I still found the idea Or wellian. And appealing to a young person's "career goals" at a time like this comes off as even more unseemly.
Only three weeks ago, the Army held a press conference to crow about the campaign's results. After missing its recruitment quotas in the two previous years, it not only met its goal of 75,800 new recruits for the active-duty Army by Sept. 30, but also got there one month early. "A lot of people weren't quite sure that we crazy people were headed in the right direction," said the Army secretary, Thomas E. White, at the time. "Well … the proof's in the pudding."
Of course, many analysts point to the fact that the economy was noticeably slowing just around the time the new slogan came out, and many recruits had an economic incentive to join.
At the agency, account director Douglas Smith said that new creative is continuing down the same path. (Probably moving on to document the stage after basic training.) " 'Army of one' is bigger than you and me," he said.
In the absence of any change, let's return, then, to the words of Cpl. Richard Lovett, featured on the Internet and in the first TV commercial. "I am an army of one," he says. "I am my own force. With technology, with support and with training, who I am has become better than who I was. ... The might of the Army doesn't lie in numbers. It lies in me."
Let's hope so.