Entry from August 9, 2002

Memorializing September 11th, Part One: The fact that advertisers are saying they won’t advertise and networks (at least Fox) are saying they won’t run advertisements on September 11th makes the interesting point that, somewhere in the backs of our minds, there is still a sense of the honorable limits to commercial activity. Of course, we have always known that profiting from other people’s misfortunes, if looked at in such stark, abstract, moral terms, is wicked at worst and tasteless at best. And yet no one counts as profiteering on human misery the common practice of television news programs of making money by attracting advertisers to accounts of, say, a bloody accident. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the saying goes in the news business, and this is surely just good business sense.

But there are limits, and it appears that the upcoming first anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11th will bump us up against them. Writing for the Wall Street Journal — and so with an understandable bias towards uninterrupted commercial activity — Tunku Varadarajan professed to find the idea of a day without TV advertisements “depressing, not to mention silly and unhelpful.” Though he claims, with perhaps just the hint of hyperbole, that “Normally, I would welcome an ad-free day on the box as the equivalent of having died and gone to heaven,” he thinks that the networks who aren’t accepting ads and the advertisers who have encouraged them to adopt such a policy by not advertising on that day are letting the side down. “Here you have companies,” he writes, “— some of them pillars of the economy — saying, in effect, that there is something inherently vulgar about commerce, perhaps even sacrilegious.”

Well if so, they won’t be the first to say it. In fact, the history of people finding “something inherently vulgar about commerce” is a very long one indeed, as those of the upper crust who used to turn their noses up at those “in trade” could tell you. And as for finding it sacrilegious, wasn’t that rather the point of Jesus’s throwing the money-changers out of the temple? The point is not, or not usually anyway, that commerce is to be despised for its own sake but that its eagerness for profit does rather tend to excite our disgust when it it spills over into areas of life, particularly those concerned with religion or solemn civic occasions, where it is thought to have no proper place.

Although Mr. Varadarajan is surely right to speculate that the companies who are pulling their spots on September 11th and not even trying to put anything more appropriate in their places are afraid — afraid “that a flash of commerce will somehow sully the day, and soil the companies” reputations” — he says it like a taunt. Hey, are you guys chicken? Is the big, bad c.e.o. (and boy is he ever bad now!) afraid of a little sullying? But after all, don’t we want them to be afraid in this way? Isn’t a fear of appearing to be vulgar and insensitive the very foundation of good manners?

Besides, Mr V. thinks that the companies are wrong in their “fear that ads would harm their commercial prospects.” The “national disposition,” he says “is positive and resilient” and pretty much everybody agrees that on the ground zero site, in addition to some kind of tasteful memorial, there should be another temple of commerce built, even if not one of the six proposed designs for the site would be a tithe as memorable to the view as the buildings they are meant to memorialize. In the circumstances, pulling the ads “would be purely, and hollowly, symbolic — and even self-indulgent”

He doesn’t bother to explain his reasoning on the latter bizarre claim, so let me fill it in for him as best I can. If the companies think that their customers, disgusted by seeing advertising on September 11, might stop buying from them, they are showing a selfish concern for profit that is, somehow, discreditable only on this day and not on the other 364 days in the year. Therefore, the normal business philosophy of giving the customer what he wants should be suspended for the day and commercials should be crammed down the customer’s throat for his own good and to maintain the reputation of business for altruism. What could be more disinterested or less vulgar?

The essay ends with Mr Varadarajan asking: “Can anyone give me a reason why viewers, if presented with something respectfully done, should be turned off by it? Are they not more likely to be reassured — and to be put in a mood to reward those companies that made the effort?” I can but try. The answer is that, however “respectfully done” and however nicely and beguilingly put, an advertisement in such circumstances is a command to stop thinking about the dead and start thinking about laundry detergent or cola drinks or high-performance cars. It is in its very nature disrespectful. And defenders of free and untrammeled commerce such as myself would be glad to think so well of the makers of laundry detergent or cola drinks or high-performance cars as to suppose that were not money-making automata but men and women like those who died and capable of a practical demonstration that they put respect for their common humanity above profit.

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