Will It Ever Be OK to Use 9/11 in an Ad?

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The World Wildlife Fund finds itself in a bizarre and fascinating controversy over an advertisement designed for the company featuring a gaggle of airplanes bearing down on the twin towers. It's a reference to the deadly Asian tsunami that killed "100 times more people than 9/11." "Too soon," said a couple people I follow on Twitter. They're obviously correct. The outcry over the ad has been significant, and the World Wildlife Fund indignantly claims it never approved the image. But it makes we wonder (and I hope it's not too soon to simply wonder!) when 9/11 will be an acceptable cultural reference for advertisements like this.


Here's the ad (via NY Daily News):

911ad.png

It's certainly arresting, a little bit terrifying, and a whole lotta provocative. But it makes me wonder about using other national tragedies in marketing campaigns. It would probably be acceptable to say the tsunami was 100 times worse than the Titanic, or the Lusitania. I think everybody who lived through those events are dead, and for gods sake, if we can make it a musical, we can make it a poster. It would probably be OK (if a little weird) to say the tsunami was X times worse than Pearl Harbor, but even thinking about that advertisement starts to sting in whatever part of my brain gauges public indignation.

If the ad had featured a series of waves bearing down on the French Quarter in New Orleans with the text "Imagine 100 Katrinas..." I imagine the outcry would be pretty great, since the hurricane's wound is still quite raw, and Louisiana hasn't made a full recovery yet. I wonder whether 9/11 being an act of war permanently scars any serious cultural reference to the event or whether, as the "too soon" comment implies, it is simply a matter of time before an ad like this is seen and considered, rather than seen and censured.

Edit note: Even searching for a picture to accompany this story on the homepage has been an awkward wrestling match between "It's about 9/11, of course you can put a picture of the towers there" vs. "Something about these pictures still burns a little too provocatively."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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