Stars and Stripes reemerges as American consumers' favorite brand

November 26, 2001|By Abe Novick

THE WAVE of patriotism lifting the country to a height unseen since the 1940s has American consumers turning to the flag as brand - the chosen symbol and badge of honor.

Americans have wrapped themselves in it, as if it were a red-white-and-blue blanket. Taken it out of the attic trunk where it was kept folded, suppressed deep down under their worn 1970s Earth shoes. There it rested, buried ever since Abbie Hoffman wore it as a sign of rebellion on his sleeve. Hidden, the flag lost its brand appeal. It was no longer a symbol of cool, no longer a hipster's fashion statement.

Now our desire to return homeland again has made it manifest. Wherever you look, Old Glory is flapping. Mounted like a billboard. No tag line needed. But if there were a line of copy, it would read like something out of the movie Brazil: "We're all in it together." Sponsored by: From one American to another.

Now is it so morally reprehensible, so utterly exploitative when Madison Avenue hops off the bench and rejoins the game to play Capture the Flag?

Arguably, advertisers would be fools, completely out of touch, if they didn't leverage patriotism's equity to their benefit.

Flip through channels, a magazine or newspaper and - Pow! - like bombs bursting in air, there it is. General Motors is rockin' a jingle timed to the heartbeat of America to "Keep America Rolling."

Advertising has always been a part of pop culture. But it's less about selling this time around than it is reflecting the culture. Talking to it. Trying to understand it. Trying to say, "Hey, I know you are scared. So are we. But we want you to trust us. It's OK."

Is that wrong?

The anticipated response could be that Americans will look at this flag-waving phenomenon and wave back the most common way we know how, with our wallets.

That legally tender transaction isn't solely because of the battle cry heard echoing down Madison Avenue, either. The appeal to sell product is driven with a green light to buy because it intersects with 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

As jet fighters fly off into the darkness from carriers' runways, over there, carrying boys and bombs, we move fashion down ours here. On Nov. 15, while the Voice of America was broadcast over Afghanistan, the voice America heard was the seductive sounds of Victoria's Secret's scantily clad sirens. Fulfilling a sailor's dream, they had their own primetime TV show. For most of us, they were the epitome of the intangible and unattainable. Yet, rather than listen to Pashtu in a cave, I felt lucky to watch the latest version of entertainment and advertising morph into a new version of Angels in America before my very eyes.

Just as the libidinous ability sex has to stop one dead in his channel-surfing tracks, seeing the Stars and Stripes today has a way of making us look up in a way we haven't for more than 30 years.

Symbols of intangible angels and universal soldiers are a part of American mythology and get latched onto products all the time, like wings to a pair of running shoes named Nike - and, swoosh, a star is born.

The American flag has resurfaced. It's been given that same exalted stature and legitimacy we give to all things we hold most near and dear in this world - brand identity.

Abe Novick is a senior advertising company executive in Baltimore.

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