Duck and Cover

Advertising-wise, my 2002 began pleasantly enough. The “Let’s get ready to rumble” guy asked me, in a PSA, to buckle my seat belt. Movie previews enhanced a special hangover viewing of America’s Sweethearts. Even the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, in its seventh year with that silly name, felt familiar and comforting. (It could have been a closer game, though.)

But at dinner on New Year’s Day, I got that feeling. That 2002-isn’t-a-day-old-and-advertising-is-already-getting-me-down feeling.

What did it was dinner itself. Specifically, the duck sauce labeled “United we stand.” Also the “NYPD/FDNY America’s heroes” mustard. And did I mention the American-flag soy sauce?

My Chinese takeout was crawling with patriotism.

This followed another disturbing discovery, a few days earlier, in an East Village bar. In the bathroom was an ad for Smush, a game show on cable whose contestants tack words together to create comical hybrids (sort of like sniglets, but not as good). The ad showed six elephants sitting snugly in beer cans. “Half-dozen cans of beer + Fancy name for elephant,” it said. The answer, in bold, was “Sixpachyderm.”

Just to the right was another ad, this one with the now-familiar white block letters on a black background. It said, “United we stand.”

These encounters were unfortunate but not really worth dwelling on. The particulars of patriotism vs. opportunism—the appropriateness of a message and its placement—have been hashed out enough. A better question is whether a phrase like “United we stand” means anything anymore.

It’s still up on trucks and taxis, on bus shelters and subway posters, in delis and Dunkin’ Donutses. Sometimes it’s sponsored, sometimes not. But as with any word you look at too long, somewhere along the way it became a jumble of letters. To borrow from a Fallon ad for Citibank, I no longer knew what it had to do with standing. Or being united. Or us.

The endless repetition gave the phrase something like the feel of hype—a sense of a thing not just big but insistently, mindlessly big. If it were a movie, it would be The Phantom Menace. If it were a band, it would be The Strokes.

I suppose it still means … something. But what, I can’t remember.

All of which is odd, considering how uncontrived and immediate the basic sentiment was (and still is). And it’s a shame, not least because with hype comes backlash. It seems OK to be numb to “United we stand.” It’s weird to find yourself resenting it.

It’s tempting to blame the duck sauce—to believe that “United we stand” works well in moderation and in tasteful contexts. That’s probably true. But at this point, whoever is to blame, the game seems to be up. Enough is enough. A good New Year’s resolution might be to retire the phrase entirely, at least for now.

Of course, that won’t happen. Generic patriotic messages will no doubt continue to languish in limbo, like movie posters that persist long past a film’s release date.

So we’ll continue to tune them out. As they would say on Smush, we’ll be United-we-standoffish.