. . . Thursday March 4, 2004

Indecent Exposure

In publications around the web, people are debating whether the use of 9-11 images is fair game for political ads. Let’s skip to the chase. It’s not. I wrote a column on the ads in my weekly newsletter called NextDraft. Here it is:

Let’s start with the basics. They think you’re stupid. At least that’s what they think of you if you’re an undecided voter in an important 2004 swing state. The Bush marketing machine, which just rolled out their first ads for the general election, doesn’t think that you realize that September 11th changed the political landscape in this country. And they didn’t even think that mere mentions of the event (such as ad voiceovers that read: “Then… A day of tragedy. A test for all Americans.” or “Some challenges we’ve seen before. And some were like no others. But America rose to the challenge.”) would be enough, so the marketing wizards behind the campaign saw fit to include a key visual. What is it?

Perhaps, you might imagine, they included some video of President Bush visiting troops in Iraq last Thanksgiving. Or maybe they showed Tommy Franks standing next to the President as they announced Franks’ leadership of the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. No. They didn’t think that would do the trick. So instead they served up a picture of a small section of gutted concrete and twisted steel that was left standing at Ground Zero after the 9-11 attacks.

It goes quickly enough that you might just pause to remember that terrible moment (as if you could have forgotten it) and not really think about it much more. Well think about it. Images from 9-11 are being used to market a product. Not a fund being raised for victims families. Not a tribute to firefighters or police officers who lost their lives. But to launch a political campaign.

To paraphrase another ad campaign, images are everything. Let’s start with the ones you haven’t been allowed to see: The coffins of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq. We have been told that the American people will be required to sacrifice. Shouldn’t part of that sacrifice be to at least allow the images of the real sacrifices being made by our fellow Americans to work their way into our living rooms and into our consciousness. Shouldn’t we be asked to press pause on American Idol long enough to psychologically absorb a hint of the pain (the real pain, not the ad campaign pain with an authoritative voice reading over a carefully selected musical piece) being felt by those who have lost loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan?

No. Why? Because those images don’t sell the message. Well in my book, the images of the shattered shell of the World Trade Center do not sell any message other than the fact that for political gain, the Bush team is willing to turn Ground Zero into rock bottom.

Karen Hughes insists that such complaints are just whining Democrats. “With all due respect, I just completely disagree, and I believe the vast majority of the American people will as well. I can understand why some Democrats might not want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the President and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath of that.”

I guess she’s right. Because when I see those images, I think of the great leadership and courage of the firefighters who climbed up smoke-filled stairways and of families who wandered the streets posting fliers with pictures of their missing loved ones. Or maybe I think of my wife’s friend who we simply call The Sarge who was shipped off to Iraq a few hours after his Valentine’s Day wedding and didn’t return for well over a year. But frankly, when confronted with those images, I never think of Laura Bush. Good to have that disconnect finally resolved.

Monica Gabrielle (whose husband died in the twin towers) must be among those “Democrats” that Hughes is talking about. Gabrielle told the NY Daily News that: “It’s a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people. It is unconscionable.” Sounds like she just doesn’t want to remember the leadership shown by the President, huh? Same with Tom Roger whose daughter died in the attack: “To show the horror of 9/11 in the background, that’s just some advertising agency’s attempt to grab people by the throat.” And firefighter Tommy Fee of Queens must be a real lefty because his response was: “It’s as sick as people who stole things out of the place. The image of firefighters at ground zero should not be used for this stuff, for politics.”

We’re in a national tizzy over the supposedly threatening indecency of a split second of a pop star’s breast or a few words from a shock jock’s mouth. Meanwhile those who are most offended by such violations of our airwaves are silent or even supportive when it comes to something as flat-out sick as this.

This is not an argument that President Bush failed to show leadership in the aftermath of September 11th. It’s about what is O.K. and what is not O.K. when it comes to selling a product — be it a can of beer or a candidate for president. It’s something this president speaks of often enough; a matter of simple right and wrong. Reminding us of W’s leadership skills can be done without these images, which are of course forever etched in our minds anyway. Forget about the hypocrisy of co-opting the loss, sacrifice and courage of others in the name of self-aggrandizement. Let’s just leave it at this. A President who feels quite at ease marketing his own faith should at least realize that some things are sacred.

Concentration is important!