United We Stand: Fresh Hoagies Daily
Issue #59, February 2002
Driving around Pittsburgh the week after September 11th, we couldn't help but notice that something had changed in the roadside landscape: the signs. Where roadside marquees once announced the arrival of new managers at tire shops and $.99 "values" at fast food restaurants, they now combine those messages with short, patriotic expressions -- mostly cliches or variations on cliches. The sign from which this essay takes its name is a great example: a convenience store advertises its own brand of fast food, with its own brand of patriotism. These signs can be found all over the Pittsburgh landscape. The pictures that accompany this essay were taken in late October on a strip of highway leading from Butler, PA into Pittsburgh, and within the city itself. Roadside marquees can only say a little to passers-by, but as a pervasive cultural phenomenon, they can be read more deeply.
Roadside marquees and business signs express some of the contradictions at the heart of current expressions of patriotism. Billboards around town contain one of three messages, sometimes all combined within the same sign. Expressions of unity generally take one of a few available forms: "God Bless America." "United We Stand." "We Will Not Forget." "America the Beautiful." Signs in and on vehicles express the same messages. Marquee messages also offer deals: $.99 hamburgers, sales on golf balls, buy-one-get-one-free offers. These are familiar, ubiquitous sales messages.
Marquees also inform us of available jobs. A local dry cleaner's lighted marquee notifies passers-by that pressers are needed. The Pizza Hut in Butler is hiring. Banks need tellers. These are familiar, everyday messages. But post-9/11, we find ourselves paying more attention to them. There's something really weird about "In God We Trust: Huge Golf Ball Sale" or "American Flags Cleaned Free." Dropping off dry cleaning or buying golf balls for grandpa suddenly feels very different. These marquee messages advise us that day-to-day consumerism is no longer a simple act. Being implored to shop, being offered deals and patriotic messages in the same breath sets consumerism as a patriotic duty, expressed in the form of a regular day-to-day activity. We are now consumer-citizens who can best express our support for democracy not by volunteering or participating in some civic activity, but by taking the family to the mall and loading up the SUV with our purchases.
In a brand new Life book, One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001, author Bob Greene comments on how the "dailiness of the America before September 11" is still everywhere, just slightly different. Driving through the Midwest on September 13th, Greene noticed how roadside and local business signs communicated both normality and difference. Ringo's Golf Center was open. Al's Diner flew the American flag. A used car lot's sign exclaimed "Pray for our Nation's Leaders" rather than advertise its deals. "We believe in certain things, now and always: BUCKLE UP IT'S THE LAW." " Staggered and hurt, we proclaim that we will make it. Everything looks the same, everything looks different," writes Greene, and for him, it's this difference that matters. But we wonder what difference the difference makes.
The roadside marquee is the American equivalent of the Japanese haiku. Roadside marquees and haiku poems are defined by their limits. Marquees can only accommodate a certain number of letters and spaces. Haiku poems have the famous 3-line structure of five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. While it would seem that the form of the haiku is more restrictive, remember that roadside signs are meant to be read from moving cars. The message only has a little time to evoke some reaction in the reader, and the reader only has a moment to read and where possible, respond.
Roadside marquees are a somewhat unique form of commercial art -- or craft, if you prefer. Look at the Pizza Hut marquee. Most of the design of the restaurant and the sign is rigidly standardized: the company has copyrighted the logo and the entire appearance of the sign. Most kinds of advertisement follow this form: carefully crafted, heavily polished, and rigidly controlled by people at headquarters.
Marquees lack the control exerted over most major advertising. It is certainly true that corporate headquarters exercise some control over what's on the marquee, but it's also true that a store employee or an employee in the regional office crafts the exact message that appears there. Even if people rarely capitalize on the opportunity, marquees are a way for establishments in even the most standardized chains to offer some unique message, suited to the locale or the moment. Our Pizza Hut sign does a little of both: this store is patriotic and it is also hiring. Granted, this is hardly a unique message, but corporate headquarters did not preordain that it be put there: someone much lower in the corporate hierarchy made that decision.
Roadside marquees are also considerably less polished than most other forms of advertisement. All across the United States, plural words are spelled with apostrophes, so that "three packs for $4.99" is miswritten as "three pack's for $4.99." People don't hire professional proofreaders for their marquees. Letters can fall off: nobody blinks when "IN GOD WE TRUST" becomes "N GOD WE TRUST."
Like everyone else in America, we've noticed that September 11th has had a tremendous impact on the style and content of American commercials. "If you're a patriot, get shopping!" You can't turn on the television, read the newspaper, or drive past a billboard without seeing the signs of this strange injunction. Full-page ads in the New York Times tell readers that major investment firms, banks, and oil corporations continue to do business because it commemorates the victims of 9/11. 7-11 convenience stores printed a letter in late September assuring their customers that they would show their patriotism by "offering the same low prices and great values that you have come to expect from us." Since when did doing business express sympathy for victims?
On television, a New York tourism ad beckons visitors to the traumatized city. Everyday people exclaim "I love New York" alongside Rudy Guiliani and George Pataki. But the people we know who live anywhere near Manhattan tell us of the inescapable stench of burning oil and flesh in the city. It's so bad that the smell clings to your skin and hair. Visiting New York City seems to operate as a prophylactic against the kind of happy-go-lucky consumerism that operates elsewhere. In NYC, it's impossible to forget that we live in a world at war: military police patrol the streets; just mailing a letter can take upward of an hour; New Yorkers behave in oddly friendly ways.
Overall, there's something conflicted in the post-9/11 injunction to visit New York and buy consumer goods to help the faltering U.S. economy. Over 500,000 people lost their jobs in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. An airport worker on the November 29th evening news explained that within two hours of the terrorist attacks, her employer told her not to come to work and to wait for their call before returning. That call never came.
Employment in the U.S. took the biggest drop since the recession of 1990/1. Economists estimate that another 1.5 million jobs will be lost over the next three quarters, raising the unemployment rate to 6.5%. We think it is fair to ask: who wants to go shopping when job security feels even more tenuous than it did pre-9/11? Will shopping and traveling alleviate fears over national and personal security, or will they make those fears worse? And how have consumerism and flying the American flag become the ways of expressing patriotism and hope for the future?
Both slick, professional ads and roadside marquees are meant to be read as examples of heartfelt patriotism, but of course many people are rather skeptical of that reading. Some observers interpret these symbols cynically, as opportunistic, basely commercial, unquestioningly nationalistic expressions of pro-war sentiment. And they certainly are. After all, not shopping seems like a reasonable response to wartime conditions and the high unemployment rates that have resulted.
After cataloguing several examples of corporations wrapping themselves in the flag, Sarah Turner writes in Counterpunch (10/25) that "these ads want us to associate patriotism with consumerism. But there is something tawdry about it all [...] Many of the very corporations that are showing this fake patriotism are the ones that are undermining the foundation of American democracy. In each new election cycle, corporations spend millions of dollars in campaign contributions and on lobbyists to push their pro-business agenda in Washington. These ads demean the memory of the more than 5,000 people who lost their lives on Sept. 11 [NB: This figure has since been adjusted downward]."
One can find similar complaints from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and The Nation. Even the New York Times, in its typically timid way, has printed criticisms of this kind of advertising. Advertising columnist Stuart Elliott mocks, "Will more consumers clip coupons found in Sunday newspaper inserts distributed by Valassis Communications now that they carry abstract versions of the American flag and the words 'Liberty and justice for all'?"
These criticisms ring true. When we look at the roadside marquees, it is easy to draw the conclusion that this advertising is opportunistic, and it certainly is in some cases. Maybe a store manager hopes that we'll be more inclined to buy John Deere machinery if we see their patriotic message. Maybe the thinking was that people would buy more flooring or carpet from Paracca Interiors if they knew they were getting it from patriots.
But what if, for just a moment, we take these signs on their own terms? We know that corporate management probably didn't insist that an employee go out to the marquee and express their political sentiments. What if a store manager went out there and put up "United We Stand" because he or she really wanted to? What if at that moment, that person felt powerless, and saw the sign as an opportunity, as "something I can do"? If these signs are read as sincere -- if odd -- public expressions of personal sentiment, they move a little closer to the now-ubiquitous American flags adorning public spaces, private property, roadways, and cars. We would have to see these signs as one of the few means people -- and local institutions in particular -- have to express a wide variety of feelings in easily recognizable, drive-by form.
We would also have to see this binding together of consumerism and patriotism as signs of a dwindling sense of agency in this country. As long as we can buy stuff, we matter to our government and to the Microsofts and AOL-Time Warners to whom our government actually responds. And buying stuff, we're taught from a very early age, should make us feel better when we're blue. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the most patriotic act imaginable involves driving energy inefficient vehicles and buying more crap that we likely don't need. Seen in this light, the roadside marquees may not carry a contradiction, but may instead express the dismal reality of what forms of citizenship will be rewarded in the age of the War on Terrorism.
It would be nice to believe that we are united, that we all work toward a common purpose. But the common cause behind these signs is limited: it is limited to Americans. As people opposed to the bombing of Afghanistan, we are pretty uncomfortable with the current wave of patriotism. But beyond our political and moral disagreement with the militarism that lurks behind the flag, there is a pretty vexing question: how should people express unity, sorry, or anguish after September 11th? Even if we knew before -- intellectually -- that it was possible for American civilians to be attacked and killed in the lower 48 states by a hostile foreign power, that possibility hadn't really sunk in, at least not since the "end" of the Cold War. The result is that a lot of Americans are personally terrified by the attacks. They look for something, anything, they can hold onto. Like the secular person who retreats into the old, familiar rituals of a religion in a time of stress or grief, the new wave of patriotic sentiment is also an expression of a national religion. This is not our religion, to be sure, but it appears to be the official religion of our time.
For quite a while -- long before 9/11 made this an extremely unpopular argument -- left critics have argued that we need to look beyond our own borders and mourn the dead in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, as well as on American soil. But American media rarely present their audiences with images of carnage and destruction that might evoke that kind of sympathy. For about forty-eight hours, American television provided nothing but images of New York City's decimation. But we have seen few images of the decimation of Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Palestine. Mourning and honoring those victims, as well as "our" own, remains a goal toward which we must work if we are ever to live in a peaceful world.
In the meantime, we should be vigilant in considering the means of expression available to all of us -- be they roadside marquees or web sites. The blend of commercialism and patriotism we see on our highways might make some of us uncomfortable, but we have to see them as limited expressions of the only public attitude people are allowed to have regarding the War on Terrorism. Imagine, if you will, a different American landscape, one where church marquees carried competing messages about nonviolent resistance; or one where Arab American businesses could express concerns about the future of Central Asia; or marquees that told people how to turn their anxiety and action into improving the lives of poor people at home and throughout the ever-contracting globe. In that different landscape, none of the owners of those marquees would have to fear retaliation. Perhaps we might not stand united, but at least we'd be able to talk.
Carrie Rentschler is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois.Carol Stabile is director of Women's Studies and an associate professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. Jonathan Sterne is an editor of Bad Subjects and an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh.