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Disastrous Profits 

Pseudo-patriotic ads exploit tragedy

As an alluring female voice echoes President Bush's rousing words of solidarity following last month's terrorist attacks, the TV screen shows a picturesque stretch of open road that disappears into a glowing horizon. The woman's voice continues, encouraging us to be strong, to not hide in fear, to carry on with business as usual, to. . . Buy A New Car! After all, once you get past the soft focus imagery and uplifting sentiment, that's the bottom line of the ad.

A vivacious gym bunny with impeccably teased hair and colorful leotards beckons the TV audience to stand strong and stick together during these trying times. And what better way to stay strong than. . ."to buy one of our incredible workout machines?"

Cheesy? Offensive? Shocking? Ah, come on. Don't be so naive. You knew it was coming. Sure, the loss of life is staggering, the pain and suffering incomprehensible, the acts of selflessness and heroism humbling. And yes, we're engaged in a murky and deadly war while at the same time dealing with bio-terrorism and who knows what else here at home. But hey, people have mattresses and microwaves to sell. If patriotism is degraded into a sales pitch, so be it. Besides, in America's consumer-driven, spend-happy culture, marketing is God, and just about anything goes when it comes to getting us to empty our pockets. Even if it comes at the expense of sincere patriotism and life-endangering action on the part of our country's military.

"But it's time to get back to normal!" the voices trumpet. We need to show those terrorists that we're Americans, we're strong, we're vigilant, we've got credit cards and we're not afraid to use them! Take a cruise! Book a flight! Hell, do both, the travel and entertainment industries need your help. Get that dinette set you've had your eye on, or that new wide-screen TV. But for God's sake, buy something. It's all going to a good cause -- America. Or so the ad men and marketers tell us -- with numbing repetition and ubiquity.

"Help keep America rolling," the announcer's booming voice says in a ubiquitous radio ad. We're helping "America fight back." How? By offering zero percent financing on cars - what else?! Hurry in now.

One jewelry store has unleashed an e-mail sales pitch that started with thoughtful words about "expressing our deepest sympathy and concern to all that have been affected by the devastating tragedy on Sept. 11." It goes on to say that "our thoughts and prayers go out to all the innocent victims. . .experiencing horrific loss and pain as a result of this national catastrophe." Then, in giant, blue flashing text, the ad gets down to business: "Jewelry and Watch Liquidation. WARNING: This is Your ONLY notice. 1 Day Only Sale. Limited Quantities Available."

Or, as another jewelry store ad suggests, show that you're "proud to be an American" by stopping in at one of their stores and getting an American flag lapel pen, for the "colors that never run." Granted, the jewelers are doing a good deed by giving proceeds to relief efforts, but for many people, the line between community spirit and commercial exploitation is getting pretty blurred.

At times it seems that just about all industries are getting in on the act. A yacht-chartering company on the West Coast adorned an ad touting its wedding packages with the big fat headlines: "God Bless America" and "United We Stand." One local developer is plugging one of its subdivisions with newspaper ads featuring a photo collage of Old Glory and the Statue of Liberty, urging consumers "to pursue the American Dream" and "get the economy moving again."

In fact, the Stars and Stripes are even showing up in the fashion industry -- emblazoned across the chest of Ralph Lauren models, and in the backdrop of Tommy Hilfiger ads.

Of course, these companies aren't in business for charity's sake. And it's hard to imagine that anyone's sympathy for those affected by the tragedies isn't genuine. But to many, it just seems wrong -- and certainly in bad taste -- to conjure up images of patriotism, America and unity while you're making a sales pitch.

"It turns my stomach, to be honest with you," said Charlottean Robert Trinow, a technical representative. "I know most businesses need to see an increase in dollars in the current recession, but it's not right to piggyback on an awful tragedy like September 11 for your own pocketbook, I don't care how sincere you are about having sympathy and being patriotic. I'm sorry, but it's just immoral, in my opinion."

Connecting with neighbors, family and fellow human beings seems a far more meaningful way to show solidarity and love of country. Of course, buying a ThighMaster in the name of patriotism is a preferable response to hiding under a bed. But so far most folks don't seem to be doing that. Even the most jaded among us seem to have adopted a new attitude about what it means to be an American. Suddenly it's no longer corny or passe to be proud and patriotic. Interestingly, this new sentiment has come at a time when seemingly nothing was sacred and nearly everything was perceived with a snide, world-weary skepticism, open to smug and often mean-spirited observations. That is, until September 11. As the country moves on with a new outlook and at least some semblance of a new consciousness, suddenly trivial gossip and flippant remarks seem less appropriate, even offensive. But the same needs to be said for all the pseudo-patriotic ads. If returning to "business as usual" simply means gorging ourselves on yet more useless and unnecessary products, then perhaps Americans need to change what "business as usual" means. *

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