Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

In the days leading up to the anni versary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, we will be asked to remember—and remember and remember—where we were, how we felt, what we witnessed during that terrible day and its aftermath.

So here’s a memory for you: the widespread relief so many Americans experienced when commercials returned to television after a 93-hour absence. There was no more visceral illustration of the extra ordinary nature of the events of 9/11 than the endless hours of coverage without any commercial interruptions. And nothing so clearly signaled a tentative return to nor mality than the return of 30-second spots. What a comfort it was when America went back to hawking cars, hamburgers and soft drinks. This nation of ad-zappers was suddenly grateful for commercials.

But we wouldn’t have been so glad to see them back if they hadn’t gone away in the first place. Thus, it would only be fitting if the first anniversary of that notorious day were also commercial-free. In our ad-soaked culture, there can be no more effective way to mark the day than to reprise the moratorium on advertising. All of New York City is being asked to observe a moment of silence. What could be more appropriate than the marketplace taking time out for its own moment of silence?

None of this has been lost on the ad community. As soon as the networks began unveiling plans late last month for wall-to-wall coverage of the 9/11 anniversary, a raft of blue-chip advertisers very publicly recoiled from the notion of sullying the airwaves with sales pitches. Not to be outdone, both Fox and Fox News Channel, neither particularly well-known for a decorous taste in programming, quickly announced that they would not accept commercials, even in the unlikely event that an advertiser wanted to place one. Other cable channels are planning commercial-free commemorative programs. And while the other broadcast networks have not given up on luring a dignified sponsor or two, they are resigned to the possibility that much of their coverage will be ad-free. No one wants to be seen exploiting the audiences who will relive 9/11 as they originally experienced it: in front of their TVs.

Hypocritical? A little. After all, exploiting audiences is exactly what marketing and media people are paid to do. And usually no level of vulgarity, coarseness or bad taste in programming can deter them from the task, as long as the eyeballs are there.

But the anniversary of 9/11 is not business as usual. Indeed, it’s not business at all. It’s a time for ritualistic gestures of public piety. Even if advertisers were less skittish than they are, it makes absolutely no sense for every broadcast network and multiple cable channels to repeatedly play the same searing footage of the airplanes slamming into the twin towers. It may in fact be harmful: Last week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that suggested that the more TV coverage of 9/11 people watched, the more likely they were to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

But even if there are no good rational reasons for television to turn itself over entirely to the remembrance of 9/11, there are plenty of good irrational ones. As CBS president Les Moonves put it, offering too much coverage is better than “not paying enough respect to what happened.” This is not about what television can tell us about 9/11. It’s what 9/11 can tell us about television and its role in our society.

For all our enthusiasm for it, Americans have long held that commerce’s influence is a profane one. Which is why for many years certain times and places were off limits to the blandishments of the marketplace. Laws forbade stores from doing business on Sundays. The only signage seen in schools were posters put up by the pep club. In the media, an unbreachable wall separated the editorial and sales departments.

But as the media proliferated and fractured and audiences became more scattered and pressed for time, these old taboos fell. Schools sell access to student eyeballs to the highest bidder. Cities dream of raising much-needed cash by affixing corporate logos to subway stations and tracts of public park. The separation of content and advertising is a quaint relic in an age when cosmetic companies buy their way into soap-opera scripts and jewelers commission novels.

Is anything sacred? Nah, not really. But TV and its advertisers will do the nation a big favor if, for one day, they behave as if something were.