First, mea culpa, for not even having a reference to this commercial in my Super Bowl American Revolution post, but for some reason it wasn’t mentioned in the media hype days before the game, and hey, it only was shown in the New York, Philly, and DC markets, so you’ll just have to cut me some slack. But more importantly, this commercial, which aired last night, has some people up in arms, for two reasons. One is that some people are offended by its reference to 9/11, in the service of selling Colonial Williamsburg (CW), or, perhaps, selling anything). The other is that CW, a non-profit, bought the expensive ad at all, at a time when it appears to be struggling financially. For it’s part, CW’s reaction has not been admirable. Here’s my question: why is it that CW picked 9/11 at all? Because, while CW says it wants to “challenge” Americans, it has shied away from that admirable task.
Let’s take on the first issue first: how we feel about the use of 9/11.
I’m ambivalent, myself. On the one hand, like everyone else who remembers that day, I remain a little traumatized. I grew up in northern New Jersey, first in West Orange, and then in Mountain Lakes, and in each town was not far away from a place where, when the sky was clear, you could see the Twin Towers. I remember going to Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the north tower, on with my family to celebrate my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. A friend of mine from college, not a close friend, but a friend nonetheless, was among the people who died that day. Like many Americans who remember it, I’m still a little traumatized by that day’s events and their aftermath.
One might argue, as CW has, that CW’s mission is to educate, and that means confronting not only the more triumphant but the more difficult parts of our history:
Our ad is meant to walk viewers backwards through time, challenging them to reflect on how our collective history and struggles shape who we are as Americans today. We cannot forget our sacrifices or our tragedies even as we celebrate our accomplishments. Colonial Williamsburg does not shy away from these difficult moments in our history because they have made us who we are just as surely as our many triumphs.
To some extent, I’m sympathetic to that argument. The more immediate one is the one brought up by many in social media, namely, that there’s a difference between what CW presents to visitors—which should challenge them, including with potentially disturbing elements of our past—and using that past in an advertising campaign to sell CW itself. (By the way, CW is a non-profit, so I cut it a little more slack than if the ad were for a for-profit enterprise).
It’s also been pointed out that CW shelled out a lot of money for this ad at a time when it’s making cuts, among them to local cultural institutions and a number of jobs, although, if, as it claims, those are high-level hospitality (read: hotel resort) jobs for which the money’s being redirected toward the history area, that’s a good thing in the long run. Again, I’m ambivalent here. CW does have to figure out how to get more people to come, and any sort of advertising costs money. One can certainly ask whether a high-stakes Super Bowl ad is the most resource-effective way to do so. My guess is that there are many better ways to spend what probably cost in the six figures (as it was only shown in a few markets, albeit big ones, it was not the $5 million that the corporate behemoths paid for national spots).
Here’s the more interesting question, though: if you’re going for “heartbreak” and showing “difficult moments,” why pick 9/11? Why not pick footage of, say, the use of hoses on the bridge at Selma, or of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, or Emmett Till’s funeral? Part of it has to do with the fact that, even if only shown for a fraction of a second, the 9/11 shot is pretty memorable. Most Americans would recognize it right away.
I’ll tell you my theory, though, beyond recognizability of a particular moment: CW chose 9/11 because it was heartbreak caused by foreigners, rather than inflicted by Americans, on Americans.
In other words, despite its claim to be “challenging” Americans, CW is still, or maybe has become, chicken. It still is not asking us to face our own failings. Rather, as in this ad, it still portrays American history as a story of uninterrupted progress in which obstacles were overcome by heroism, without noting that, in most cases, those obstacles were made by some of us Americans wanting to exploit our fellow Americans.
I get that CW doesn’t want to offend, so as to attract people on vacation. It’s been that way at least since I worked there, in the 1990s, so I sympathize with that line of argument. Getting people to spend their vacation time and money at CW, or any history site, is a hard sell these days.
Nonetheless, perhaps since the signing of its new president around eighteen moths ago, CW has backed away from its laudable ostensible goal of challenging Americans. Its showcase summer street theater, Revolutionary City, used to have a sequence depicting enslaved people considering running off to the British, thus at least implicitly showing the contradictions of American independence. No longer. When my family visited this summer, such scenes were recast as an African-American preacher whose main concern was, wait for it… religious liberty! Maybe that’s something that conservative evangelicals like to hear, but enslaved Virginia people’s greatest concern was not whether their preachers were officially sanctioned. To say that the new interpretation whitewashes the American Revolution would not be an overstatement.
If CW wants to challenge Americans, I applaud that choice. But with this commercial, it didn’t put its money where its mouth is.
And yes, although there are real issues involved, I did also want to use the term “kerfuffle.”