It’s Only Advertising

Five years ago today I had my head fully buried in the world that is advertising—just like all the rest of you back then. I’d left Manhattan three days earlier to spend the weekend with my daughter and granddaughter in St. Louis and then on over to the University of Missouri School of Journalism for my once-a-semester guest lecture gig.

Monday was classes and senior interviews. Tuesday, Sept. 11, was for lab workshops, more interviews, and then back to New York and the semi-real world of advertising.

The subject of my lecture was “Things you should be willing to learn about the ad business—or else you might as well go join a blues band right now.” Purposely wise-guy stuff punctuated with some genuine experiences and things I’ve learned over the years, many the hard way. Anyway, one of the points I made was “It’s only advertising.” Meaning, get a grip. Look at what you’re doing through the lens of semi-reality. Find a balance. Don’t take yourself, or your ideas, so damned seriously that you can’t see past either one. Etc.

Of course, Tuesday the world as we knew it changed, profoundly and forever. The world sobered up. Went mad. Came together. Rushed to the fringes. Got hyper-political. More conservative. Critical. Revengeful. More dangerous. More unified. More polarized. Self-righteous. Some of it. All of it. Nevertheless the world we live in changed dramatically—and will continue to—spawned by the drama and terror of 9/11 and the subsequent human tragedies that followed—as if there’s some kind of new world strategy that’s demanding we face a new truth, and exposing our powerlessness to prevent any of it.

Priorities shifted. Some things became more relevant and important. And many things became less relevant and less important.

And I’m sittin’ here now wonderin’: What about us? What about us ad people? Have we changed? Well, probably we’ve changed. But, has the way we sell stuff changed? And I don’t know. More than that, I don’t know if it should. I have no clue. Just the barest of a question: Given the past five years since that day, and given that so much of the rest of the world has changed, that the context we market in has changed dramatically—should have, would have, could have, did … advertising? Meaning, the way we advertise. Meaning, the way we communicate, what we say, how we say it?

All I’ve got is the question. No answers. No hypotheses. No predictions. The last guy who chanced it predicted 9/11 would mean “the end of irony.” Reasonable idea, but it didn’t happen. (Fact is we’re more ironic than ever.) And this guy was a lot smarter than me. So, no predictions here.

Not that this other world, advertising, should have changed, but as I sit here five years later and think about it, it just doesn’t feel like it did change. And I find that strange. Not bad, not good—no judgments. I just find it odd that there doesn’t appear to be any shifts in the way we talk to the people we’re trying to sell stuff to, or a sales pitch or approach of some kind that reflects the profound change going on in the world around us. Not literal reflections, of course, but some indication that we no longer communicate in the same environment that existed five years and one day ago.

I’m not talking about the process; I’m wondering about the dialogue.

And haven’t people changed, too? Aren’t we … more cautious, more sensitive to values, more painfully aware of the diversity around us, more concerned for our well- being, our children’s, others less-privileged? Don’t we think through issues a little differently now? Aren’t a lot of us more cynical, distrusting of institutions? Unwilling to accept the way things are done, just because? More reliant on self, less on others? Less interested in “authority figures”? Shifting from reactive to proactive? Out with the old? Less willing to believe what people tell us, or try to sell us, just because? Something?

Or—are we in even greater need of … escape? Humor? Fantasy? Direction? Creature comforts? Indulgences? I personally find these kinds of possibilities more difficult to embrace, just as I find it impossible to watch the kinds of TV programming, like Entertainment Tonight or Extra, for example, that utterly suspends any kind of sense of the world, and even celebrates the kind of false values so counter to today’s new reality.

And yet, nothing. It’s as if advertising has isolated its selling self in a world that may no longer exist. Or maybe it does.

Or maybe it’s just me.

(There has been at least one significant change in the communications process over the past five years: the Internet has created a third dimension, one that extends beyond marketers and consumers to connect consumers with each other. It has created the possibility for endless, interconnected communities, within which we can talk to each other. And talk unvarnished, unedited truth. Or total bullshit. But, no boundaries. No rules. And people are taking full advantage of it around the world with e-mail, Web sites, blogs and chat rooms. This change would have happened anyway, I think, driven by the technology. And besides, how we communicate online, what we say, doesn’t seem to be affected. It’s still about what I’ve got, and what you want. And how to connect the two, no?)

Back on that morning at Missouri J-School, one of the students comes in late and says an airplane has just crashed into a building in New York. We turn on a TV. It’s the World Trade Center, and as we’re watching another plane hits the second tower. I see the pictures, I hear the words. But I do not understand. I still don’t.

Everything else was instantly irrelevant that day. Classes, lectures. My career. My dogs. “It’s only advertising,” I tell a student who still shows up for his interview, before I cancel it.

Like the rest of you, 9/11 confronted my priorities in brutal fashion. A dramatic wake-up call to what is genuinely important.

As we drove up the Hudson on the way home five years ago, there was the barest suggestion in the foliage that the season was turning, and along with it, our lives. Within weeks we would be blessed again with spectacular reds and yellows and vibrant oranges that looked to us just like they did the previous year—and will again this year. Each time ignoring what took place a few days earlier, and a few miles south.

Since that day our lives have not been nearly as predictable as the fall colors. But I think our advertising has been, and I’m not sure why. Or what it means. Or if it means anything at all.

“It’s only advertising,” I tell myself, again.