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On Sept. 11, 2000, Wal-Mart sold about 6,000 American flags. The same day a year later, the day of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Northern Virginia, the mega-retailer sold 116,000 American flags -- almost 20 times more than the year before. Soon, Wal-Mart had sold out of its entire stock.

From American flag decals and replicas of the World Trade Center to an emotionally fueled advertising campaign for The New York Times, the marketing and commodification of September 11 reveals the contradictory processes by which consumers in the United States (and around the world) communicate and construct national identity through cultural and symbolic goods, according to a new book edited by Old Dominion University Professor Dana Heller.

In the book, "The Selling of 9/11: How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity" (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2005), essays, including one by ODU faculty member Bill Hart, take critical stock of the role that consumer goods, media outlets, commercial advertising, marketers and corporate public relations have played in shaping cultural memory of a national tragedy.

In her introduction to the book, Heller describes the sudden glut of commemorative products -- souvenir casino chips, snow globes, toilet paper, flag decals, lapel pins and "I (heart) N.Y." T-shirts -- following the attacks. American consumers both participated in and bore witness to a rapid transformation of the attacks and their attendant images -- smoking skyscrapers, doomed airliners and weary firefighters -- into commodities aimed at repackaging turbulent and chaotic emotions, Heller writes, "reducing them to a pious, quasi-religious nationalism."

"We were, at this time, a nation starved for meaning. But most of what was available for consumption contained no value, only empty calories ...(leading to) what Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman once termed 'American Nervosa,' 'a compulsive self-gorging on ritual images.'"

Heller notes that the authors who contributed the essays are not against consumption, either as a necessity or as an enjoyable pastime. "What we do share are some concerns about the ways that 9/11 has been exploited for profit, hijacked in order to move consumer goods, and, consequently, transformed into a consumer good itself." She points to particular campaign ad from President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign. Just as the image of Mr. Clean denotes clean floors and the Pillsbury Doughboy denotes something warm from the oven, the spot linked the president to the nation's response to the terrorist attacks "with hopes that fear of subsequent attacks would motivate voters to buy in for another four years."

Retailers of non-commemorative products also got in on the act, Heller writes. A General Motors ad in 2002 promoted interest-free financing on new cars, stating, "The American Dream: We refuse to let anyone take it away from us." On Sept. 11, 2002, Spirit Airlines announced that passengers could fly for free to thank them for their patronage during the preceding year, a dark period for the airline industry. The ad had the dual effect of winning media publicity while making the airline seem like a caring corporation.

This article was posted on: July 15, 2005

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