The spam spoils of war

Bin Laden toilet paper! Cipro e-mail! In the great American tradition, an army of entrepreneurs is trying to make hay on horror.

Published October 17, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Rubble from the World Trade Center. Piqatas in the shape of Osama bin Laden. Cipro pills to fight anthrax. "One of a kind patriotic lapel pins!" "Gas masks that are 100 percent certified by the Israeli Army." Mugs, T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, posters -- all with bin Laden's face behind a target or under the label "Wanted: Dead or Alive."

Welcome to the "war on terrorism" shopping mall. Individual Americans may be feeling nearly paralyzed with anthrax paranoia, and unemployment is rising while industrial output continues to fall, but at least one sector of the entrepreneurial American machine is kicking itself back into gear. It's time to cash in on the crisis: Vendors that once focused on celebrity paraphernalia now do a swift business in bin Laden merchandise; volunteers who offered to remove World Trade Center debris now aim to sell it; and once-obscure companies selling security -- at home, in airports, online -- are suddenly flush with stock-market cash and fully ensconced in the mainstream mind.

The intimate relationship between crises and capitalism has its nausea-inducing moments. It's hard to admire the online scammers pushing the antibiotic ciproflaxicin as a vaccine (which is it not) and it's sickening to see the spate of products spewing hate for all Muslims.

But does that mean that wartime entrepreneurs are all snake oil salesmen? Or are they actually a vital part of the post-Sept. 11 mosaic, a clue to understanding our collective psyche? Every popup ad pushing American flags or e-mail spam offering an anthrax antidote is another piece of the picture. One could even argue that the rush to capitalize on terror's aftermath and the corresponding rush by consumers to purchase goods are quintessentially American: This is how we grieve, how we connect amid catastrophe.

"Analyzing the war-related market is the best way to read the American id," says Robert Thompson, a pop-culture professor at Syracuse University. "It's an entire culture lying down on a couch and spilling out reactions to a worldwide series of Rorschach tests."

The post-attacks market still isn't completely mature -- bin Laden T-shirts are everywhere, but few anti-war pieces of apparel can be found online or at places like Ralph Nader's recent rally in San Francisco. Of course, that in itself is one indication of where popular sympathies lie. But it is clear that the advent of the Internet, with its low barriers to entry, has made sampling the Zeitgeist quicker and easier than ever. Spam is the mirror of our consumer soul.

In the latter half of the 20th century, war-related products have historically been popular. During World War II, posters of Rosie the Riveter and a stern Uncle Sam declaring "I Want You!" became a common sight.

Subsequent wars -- in which popular support was less unified -- saw more diverse product lines. During the Vietnam War, private sector T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers reflected the public's mood of ambivalence, anger and disillusionment. Even the short Gulf War, over almost before it started, fostered debate. T-shirts and bumper stickers with phrases like "We Came, We saw, We Kicked Ass" competed in public with those that called for an end -- "No blood for oil!" -- to the war.

The response today -- flags on cars, spam in in boxes, every other advertisement on television swathed in red, white, and blue -- is more dramatic than anything experienced in generations, a fact that shouldn't be surprising, given the unprecedented toll taken by the terrorist attacks.

"People felt anger and a desire for revenge and a frustration that [they] can't do anything about it," says Syracuse's Thompson. "After Pearl Harbor, you could enlist. But here, the dynamic is so different. This terrible thing happened but people feel helpless, like they can't do anything."

David Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times, pointed out that "we seek connections to the tragedy not to draw it closer but to make it more concrete." Is it possible that the Internet has accelerated our ability to connect to our consumerist emotions -- to express our innermost feelings by buying an appropriately sloganed coffee cup?

It took three days for flag vendors to start appearing on New York streets, but -- a California company that makes corporate T-shirts and products relating to current events -- immediately noticed the urge to market products relating to the attacks.

"We began to see designs [for products] on Sept. 12" says Maheesh Jain, vice president of business development for Cafe Press. "And on the 13th, things started gong crazy."

The company initially placed a ban on attack-related items, but lifted it two weeks later. Now, more than 400 Web sites sell hundreds of war and attack-themed products made by Cafe Press. All proceeds, according to Jain, are donated to the relief effort.

"So far, we've raised about $75,000," he says.

The designs are explicitly noncontroversial. "God Bless America," "God Bless the U.S.A," "America United" -- these are the kinds of phrases you'll find on Cafe Press products. The most antiwar product includes a peace sign; the most hawkish is one that says "terrorists suck."

But Cafe Press' merchants represent only a fraction of the overall marketplace. Other vendors, perhaps to express their own emotions, have taken angrier stances. There's the Web site that contains 48 different games encouraging players to kill bin Laden, or the surfeit of products that use the Saudi's face as a target. The phrase "Wanted Dead or Alive" is ever popular -- and at least one even crosses out the word "alive." Another declares him "guilty until proven dead."

Even as all the major networks accede to White House requests not to show bin Laden's videotaped messages, patriotic-themed spam and other online commerce remain uncensored and uncensorable.

Are the entrepreneurs who push these products taking advantage of suddenly psychologically vulnerable consumers? Should "patriotic scamming" -- as Tom Geller, executive director of the anti-spam SpamCon Foundation, calls it -- be a crime? When an advertisement attempts to get worried buyers to purchase Cipro online by pushing a scenario in which you have flu symptoms "and could not get into your doctor for several days because he is totally booked up because of panic," the line between providing a useful service and flat-out fear mongering becomes pretty thin.

And yet, none of these companies are selling into a vacuum. Patients are calling their doctors everywhere, certain they have anthrax and desperate for antibiotics. Security concerns are on everyone's mind and it stands to reason that e-mail spam will reflect that. When Donald Trump reportedly started shopping for a parachute in case he had to jump out of a building that had sustained a terrorist attack, his decision didn't have anything to do with a suggestive e-mail. The people buying thousands of T-shirts and rolls of bin Laden toilet paper -- more than 6,000 rolls sold so far, according to the manufacturer -- are clearly acting according to their own free will.

Spam, no matter how crass, does reflect reality. The e-mail that declares "confidence is now for sale!" is a clear sign that many Americans are running scared. And it will undoubtedly be difficult to prove false advertising in the case of the spam that cries "Get Cipro NOW! The Threat Is Real; Don't Delay!" Americans, citizens of the world's wealthiest country, may not spend enough time outside the shopping malls and have long been more concerned with who J-Lo is dating then whether our public health infrastructure is appropriately robust. But the times are changing, and all you have to do to prove it is check your in box. Viagra is out, and antibiotics are in. Welcome to the 21st century.

Editor's note: A portion of this article was modified after publication. Click here for details.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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