OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

It's difficult to know where to begin in trying to convey a sense

of what the impact has been so far here of the devastating attacks last

week on New York and Washington.



It's daunting in many ways to write about the effects of those assaults

knowing that most of the people reading these words work or live in a

city where it has been standard operating procedure for decades to

assume that life may be interrupted at a moment's notice by an

explosion. You are all too familiar with, on one end of the scale,

sudden terror, and on the other, the tedium resulting from the need to

evacuate work for yet another phoned-in bomb threat that turns out to be

a false alarm.



We, however, are relative newcomers to living under the shadow of doubt

and fear, the gnawing caused by continuous anxiety, the realisation that

the term "losing clients" can take on a horrifyingly literal

meaning.



The severity of the attacks - not even the Nazis blew up Paris - and the

targeting of what Kevin Roberts, the chief executive officer at Saatchi

& Saatchi, calls "the symbols of our wealth and achievement", have

combined to numb and depress virtually everyone on Madison Avenue,

whether or not directly affected by the events of 11 September.



That poses a tremendous problem for an industry whose mission is to, as

Roberts puts it, "create joy and uplift", the better to stimulate

American consumers to continue to keep their wallets and purses open.

That's crucial because consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of

economic activity.



Consumer confidence was already dented by large layoffs and the dotcom

debacle, which caused trauma by shrinking the value of most stock

portfolios.



Now comes the need to confront the aftermath of what's widely being

described as the deadliest day ever on United States soil.



The big question is whether the traditional American spirit of

optimistic, buoyant resiliency will reassert itself or whether the

nation will be plunged into a psychological depression that will trigger

an economic recession. The start of the Gulf War in August 1990

precipitated a sudden shutdown of consumer spending, particularly in

travel-related marketing categories, that forced the economy into a

downturn - the most severe for advertising until the one that has hit in

recent months.



The challenges confronting advertisers and their agencies are

myriad.



Should there be special ads with patriotic themes, or will they be

dismissed as jingoistic? (That's a special concern here, where waving

the flag is a speciality even in times when people do not feel compelled

by crises to rally around it.)



Are humorous ads inappropriate now, or will they be welcomed as

delightful momentary diversions? Will ads addressing the attacks be

considered compassionate or crassly commercial?



And can the content of ads be screened carefully enough to avoid

inadvertently offending consumers, or will such scrutiny be deemed

ridiculously oversensitive?



One agency principal is already wondering whether an ad showing a

photograph of lower Manhattan - originally shot in a neighbourhood where

the World Trade Centre was not visible - ought to be scrapped.



Of course, some ads ought to go, such as one promoting the start of a

new season of the ABC sitcom Dharma & Greg, which says: "In a single

second, your entire life changes forever."



No kidding.



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