|VIETNAM: A MAJOR MARKET CLOSES. That was the headline in one advertising publication when Saigon fell, which for sheer obliviousness to the broader historical picture ranks up there with the way a Scottish newspaper announced the sinking of the Titanic: Edinburgh Man Lost At Sea. Yet its nothing worse or better than human nature to look at global events and instantly reduce them to the question of how they affect our own little worlds.
With timing second only to Arnold Schwarzeneggers, I had written a piece for this issue about how the ad market slump was an overreaction to the dot com bustbecause nothing had really changed in rich, fat, deliriously comfy America. Id even already printed the envelopes for the mailed version, with a cheerful headline ("This is the best possible time") that now looks ghastly. And then things did changegiving us at last both our little industrys decline and the big event to justify it. Edinburgh Man Lost In Ad Slump.
In fact, Im not at all certain that I wasnt right about nothing changing economically. News footage of Afghanistan has certainly driven home the point that by any historical standard, even in recession America will merely decline from Fabulously to Enormously Wealthy. But I do think things will change in the culture, of which advertising is so much a part now.
The 90s (which ended September 11) were both a golden and a gilded age. We had nostalgia for World War II because the idea of fighting for, of being deprived of anything seemed impossibly remote. We devoured hyped-up, manufactured reality TV (both the Survivor kind and the O.J.-Monica-Chandra kind) because our actual reality was so tame.
War ends all that. And certain 90s forms of outrageously excessive consumption will plainly go out of fashion, as selfish. It will be interesting, then, to see how advertising reacts if theres a genuine move to make do with less for the common good. Can we as an industry figure out how to talk measured, rather than maximum, consumption? (We did it during WWIIthough not Vietnambut the public is several orders more cynical than in the days when a cigarette, forced to change its packaging because the inks contained vital chemicals, could hype the fact with a straight face as Lucky Strike Green Has Gone To War!)
If excessive comfort goes out of fashion, so will its flip side, the extreme attitude. With life having become so safe, all airbags and warning labels, we had to seek the rush of danger in fantasies of freefall snowboarding with a soft drink; we demonstrated badass street cred in our choice of walking shoes and copped a tude by seeking out ever-edgier breath mints. Well, Osama bin Laden is even more extreme than Mountain Dew. And whatever the new tude of the times turns out to be, it wont be as careless and carefree as that.