Opinion » Viewpoint

The Selling of 9/11

Ten years later, the hustlers are busy exploiting a tragic national memory.



I was 13 years old the morning the World Trade Center was attacked, but by that afternoon I felt a lot older. My mind, which had previously only been concerned with zits and the girl who sat next to me in first period, was finally beginning to wrap around the fact that a big, scary world existed beyond my quaint Memphis suburb.

September 11, 2001, became something of a contradiction for my generation: It was a tragic, saddening, and personal faith-shaking day, all the while developing into a where-were-you social event and a punch line for off-color jokes. The moment we realized "Osama" rhymed with "your momma," our attitudes were set in stone — 9/11 was probably too much for us to comprehend, but we could at least mask our collective uncertainty and fear with humor.

But I'm not laughing anymore. Especially after discovering a display of commemorative 9/11 10th-anniversary T-shirts, stickers, and ribbons at a local arts and crafts store. Disgusted friends from around the country had already discussed such displays with me, but I had to see one for myself. Sure enough: We too in Memphis can "never forget" the deaths of almost 3,000 Americans for only $12.99.

Understand that I'm a fan of capitalism. I've hiked up my fair share of street-corner lemonade prices as temperatures approached triple digits. But as human beings, we have to draw the line somewhere. Maybe your line is further back than my line (I admit $5 for a glass of lukewarm Country Time might've been a bit much), but at least our lines exist.

I remind myself that it's silly to be shocked, because this is not a new tactic. On 9/12, the streets of New York City were lined with stands of vendors selling NYPD and FDNY T-shirts and ball caps. When you approach the situation from a detached perspective, the concept, of course, makes perfect sense: An event took place that would surely raise interest and demand for these types of products. So sell them. And boy, did they.

But the shady methods transcend 9/11. Microsoft recently apologized to thousands of Twitter followers after a tweet left a bad taste in the mouths of consumers. "Remember Amy Winehouse by downloading the ground-breaking Back to Black over at Zune," it prodded. Amazon and Apple jumped on board, too. Winehouse hadn't been dead 24 hours, and the marketing gorillas were already hustling the action: Back to Black sales increased by 37 times.

While it'd be easy to dismiss the controversial schemes as a "sign of the times" — it was Rahm Emanuel who coined the now infamous "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste" — that'd be oversimplifying. Savvy marketers (and politicians) have been profiting off of tragedies for decades. Pieces and artifacts from the boats at Pearl Harbor and the Titanic have been collected and sold as memorabilia. A Connecticut auction house was accused of profiteering after selling the journals of a Nazi death-camp doctor. The practice is as old as tragedy itself.

Watch your heads, folks: We've entered a moral gray area.  

At what point do marketing tactics become tasteless? And in the same vein, how much time has to pass before we stop caring? A few years ago, a popular T-shirt referencing the Titanic read, simply, "The boat sank. Get over it."

I don't foresee 9/11 marketing ploys becoming that crass anytime soon, but who's to say? I didn't really expect to be able to wallpaper my apartment in "September 11: Never Forget" ribbons either, but now I can do just that.

Maybe those of us who adamantly reject this blatantly disrespectful, money-grubbing treatment of a disaster are the real suckers. We're too busy worrying about people's "feelings" and "memories" and "dignity." We're too concerned with keeping at least something sacred in this society where you can't so much as use a public bathroom without being inundated with advertisements for condoms and online degrees. All the while we could be making a quick buck.  

Besides, the anniversary of New England's Great Hurricane of 1938 is coming up, and I've got a few ponchos that'd look great with "never forget" across the back.

Michael Wassmer is a communications consultant and recent graduate of the University of Memphis.

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