An old song about a convicted felon has repainted the nation's landscape -- and generated land-office business for America's manufacturers and sellers of yellow ribbons.
It's an important lesson: the business effects of world events do not always follow logical paths, nor can they easily be predicted.
Here's how it happened: Singer Tony Orlando recorded "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Ole' Oak Tree" two decades ago. It was a hit. The lyrics recount the story of a man just released from prison on the bus coming home. He wonders if his wife or girlfriend, unspecified, is still interested in him. He has written her to say that if she is, she should tie a yellow ribbon around a tree familiar to them both. She does, and presumably they live happily ever after.
Over the years, the specifics of the story were forgotten. By the time American embassy employees in Tehran were taken hostage, tying yellow ribbons around trees had come to represent support for those wrongfully held.
Now, tying yellow ribbons around not just the ole' oak tree but also the automobile antenna, the doorknob, the mailbox and just about anything else has become all the rage. It is meant to suggest support for Americans serving in the Middle East, and as such is a lovely gesture. But the path from the original idea to the current meaning has been a winding one.
Some other effects of the war have been a little more predictable.
Retailers nationwide report that they are selling American flags as quickly as they can get them in stock. Many of these flags are actually manufactured in the United States.
Just as predictable is the push for other war news. Unlike the quirky sets of just a few years ago, modern shortwave radios are reliable and easy to tune. With one you can listen to the BBC, Radio Kol Israel and many other international broadcasts.
"It's been crazy over here since it began," says an employee of Gilfer Shortwave, a Park Ridge, N.J., company that deals in elaborate shortwave radio receiving sets and accessories. "Everybody wants to listen to shortwave to hear the war."
Companies that specialize in personal security training for executives have experienced an upturn in business. Many have increased their advertising budgets to take advantage of the current tensions. These companies usually train employees who are assigned to live and work overseas, arming them with the knowledge necessary to deter kidnapping, terrorist attacks and the like. But now American executives who have no plans to leave these shores are showing interest.
The war has created business for the country's con artists, too. There have been dozens of reports of fraudulent charities, questionable 900 numbers and other illegal or just barely legal scams designed to transform your support for the troops into ill-gotten gains for the grifters. If you wish to help out, you should make the calls yourself to established charities. As always, under no circumstances should you part with money or give anyone your credit card number unless you have made a thorough check of the charity or company. The bad guys are ready and eager to turn your good will against you.
This has created new and unwanted business for the U.S. Postal Service. Postal inspectors have a new crop of mail frauds with which to deal. And fears of terrorism have made the mail carrier's job more difficult, too.
A case in point: a friend reports his mail carrier always has left small packages on his doorstep when he is not home. Two days after the outbreak of war, he arrived home to find a small yellow receipt attached to his door. He had a package, it said, which must be picked up at the post office.
Why hadn't it been left, as it always had been? "We can't do that anymore," was the reply. The new policy was in response to war-bred suspicions of any parcel left unattended. People arriving home and seeing an unexpected package -- or neighbors who notice such packages -- have taken to phoning the police, lest the package be a bomb. This has increased the workload for firemen, police officers and other authorities -- to say nothing of the unnecessary destruction of perfectly harmless packages.