Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Last week was back-to-work week in New York City and throughout the nation. Time to turn off the television, get up off the couch and shake off the tube-induced lethargy and depression. Time to stop weeping and start thinking analytically. For so many horrified and helpless millions, getting back to business was the only way to shake a defiant fist at the terrorists.

Determined to do my bit, I sat down at my computer to ponder some questions: Whither the consumer? What kind of entertainment will a shaken audience look to for diversion in the coming months? What kinds of messages will move them and feel relevant? Will consumers have the classic response to uncertain times and sit on their wallets? Or will they continue to shop, knowing that shopping has been transformed into an act of patriotism?

I hadn’t stared long at my blank computer screen before it became clear that I did not have a clue. And with all due respect to those fearless savants who have predicted a return to family fare or bet on a war dividend for the economy, no one else has a clue either.

To understand why this is so, one need only look at the ever-present pictures of the recovery site, still smoldering as I write. It has been reported that the devastation at ground zero has so altered the landscape that police officers who have patrolled the area for years do not recognize it. In the midst of the rubble and the noxious smoke, they are unable to get their bearings. They have to rely on large orange numbers that have been painted on the remaining structures. Without these signposts, they would not know where they stand.

This is the perfect metaphor for the destruction wreaked on the American psyche by the airliners that plowed into the Trade Center towers. We are all without the signposts by which we knew where we stood. Who is not reconsidering what is important and what is trivial, what is amusing and titillating and what is offensive? Who is not wondering how safe we should feel or how much in jeopardy? Who is not trying to figure out how much we do-or should-value our privacy?

It’s not just that we don’t know the future, the impact of a possible “war,” the ripple effects on the economy, the chances of another assault. After all, we never know the future, although years on end of stability and prosperity fool one into thinking otherwise. At this moment, we don’t even know the present. And there are no large orange numbers to orient us.

In the days after the attack, I found myself glancing through the columns I had written over the last few months. It was a predictably bizarre experience. It was not that I felt compelled to disavow the opinions I had expressed (not even the little jab at Rudolph Giuliani in the issue that appeared the week of the attack). But I felt immeasurably distant from them. I still knew myself to be the same person who held those views. But the criteria by which I had reached them had disappeared as surely as the twin towers themselves. My opinions were not wrong, but many of them were certainly now useless, both to my readers and myself.

I hasten to add that I know I am not alone in this experience. On the contrary, I would bet that it is universal. Everyone who makes a living speculating about the attitudes of consumers-and that includes everyone in the marketing business-must feel that same sense of estrangement from viewpoints held dear a very short time ago.

I can imagine all the briefs, ad copy and creative ideas that two weeks ago seemed brilliant, carefully aimed at some sweet spot in the consumer psyche or testing through the roof in focus groups. Today a lot of that “great work” is irrelevant and therefore worthless. Like the devastated area in lower Manhattan, these broken viewpoints, collapsed ideas and vaporized strategies will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

Nor is this weird feeling of self-alienation limited to our musings about the consumer. It is being experienced by all of the flesh-and-blood people that the abstract “consumer” represents. When we say that “the world has changed”-an observation made repeatedly over the past two weeks-what we are saying is that events have made us strangers to ourselves. And as long as we as individuals find ourselves unfathomable, “the consumer” will be unfathomable, too.