How Our Perception Of 9/11 Is Evolving With Time

Ten years later, what does Sept. 11 mean to us collectively, and how does it compare to other transformative national shocks to our national sense of self?



I recognize straightaway the potential offensiveness, or at least the insensitivity, of putting the tragedy and monstrous losses of the coordinated attacks into the syntax and epistemology of “branding.” 

But is there any doubt, with the way the media is packaging up the anniversary into consumptive units of mourning, that a brand is what we are both tracking and commemorating?

After all, a brand is no longer an item on a shelf. Today a “brand” lives and breathes (and sometimes perishes) in a rippling and expansive framework–as a series of impressions, associations and values that are neurologically braided into a consumer property, an individual, or an event.

So Apple is a brand, of course, but so is Steve Jobs’s magnificent CEO run. Millennials are a brand. Not only is Whole Foods Market a brand, but its shoppers are one: they represent an affluent, self-regarding, origin-fetishizing worshipper of food-as-personal-narrative.  

Charlie Sheen is a wounded brand. Labor unions, once a powerful brand to non-members, have lost their sheen and now, thanks to years of bashing, have become a brand that–for many–stands for over-pay and under-performance.


Woodstock is an example of what I’ll call brand metonymy–rhetorical shorthand for a generation of boomers.

So back to the 9/11 “brand.” Ten years after, what does it mean and how does it compare to other transformative national shocks to our collective sense of self? Further, what will it mean, since a brand is a neural web of associations representing not just the past; a brand also lives in the moment and is constantly be added and subtracted to in a mathematics of image morphology?

The obvious historical referent, of course, is Pearl Harbor, a connection that was instantly observed ten years ago. But it’s a mistake to over-link them; at its essence the Pearl Harbor brand is very different than 9/11. The day of infamy was instantly followed by the onset of World War II, so the trauma of its impact soon became complicated and even over-shadowed by the enormity of the war effort. Indeed, the tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor was so muted that most newspapers “squeezed it in” between other news of the day. Life magazine didn’t even cover it.

Since 1951, Pearl Harbor’s brand has grown, largely because successive military adventures–Viet Nam among them–have made World War II the last “good war,” which gives the triggering event massive emotional valence. So the Pearl Harbor brand, which has shifted away from a brand with Japan-bashing resonance, has become a brand with total emotional clarity.

By contrast, the 9/11 semiotics, in terms of brand as agency, is far more complex. While Pearl Harbor led to a successful conclusion, 9/11 led to a series of wars that continue to confuse and befuddle Americans. We sent troops to Afghanistan to find and kill Al Qaeda, and bin Laden himself is now dead. But we’re still there fighting the Taliban, which had nothing to do with 9/11. We lunged into Iraq and the consensus is that Saddam played no material role in 9/11, and had no weapons of mass destruction, which in now-discredited theory might have led to a second 9/11.


So if Pearl Harbor is a brand alloy of treachery, single-minded response and triumph, 9/11 is a brand alloy that is for now more open-ended and projective. It’s a hybrid of shock, diffused response, and uncertainty. It means one thing to many and other things to some, while 12/7 overwhelmingly means only one thing to just about everyone.  

In his book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, David Simpson writes that the process of remembrance is “cultivated, and monitored and produced with the specific possibilities of consumption in mind.”  He also notes that it has “manipulative iconicity,” meaning that we can project different meanings onto the “slimmed down economy of the signifier.”

Of course, time accelerates consumption. Advertising Age reports that while marketers are still cautious, “Nearly 10 years after the fact, however, a sense has begun to emerge that the event is no longer off-limits, and that advertising and 9/11 memorials and discussion can co-exist.” 

In fact, one day deep into the future, someone may also be able to write (cringe-worthy as it may seem now) the 9/11 analogue of this ad for a Pearl Harbor tour: “Visit Oahu’s Arizona Memorial and pay homage to the fallen servicemen at this famous Honolulu historical site. Then pick up your favorite souvenirs “for a steal” at the famous Aloha Flea Market!” 

Last weekend, every media outlet offered its own consumerized version of the 9/11 brand. Here are just a few:


•  “20/20: Remembrance and Renewal: 10 Years after the 9/11 Attacks” (ABC)

• “102 Minutes That Changed America” (History Channel)

• “9/11: 10 Years Later” (CBS)

• “9/11: America Remembers Ten Years Later: A Special Edition of Good Morning America” (ABC)

• “9/11: Day That Changed the World” (Smithsonian Channel)


• “9/11: Heroes of the 88th Floor” (TLC)

• “9/11: In Our Own Words” (MSNBC)

• “9/11: Rising Above” (NBC)

• “9/11: State of Emergency” (History Channel)

• “9/11: Stories in Fragment” (Smithsonian Channel)


• “9/11: Ten Years Later” (ReelzChannel)

• “9/11: The Days After” (History Channel)

• “9/11: Timeline of Terror” (Fox News)

But the certainty of these grandiose titles belies the uncertainty at the heart of the 9/11 brand. Yes, brands gradually change over time, but a powerful and emotionally-charged memory construction like 9/11 needs a core of clarity and closure.  

So while we have more clarity than closure, we don’t fully have either. The Japanese attacked a military base for conventional military reasons. But the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon lack that historical narrative, and the replacement language, that they “hate us because of who we are” lacks the neural framework required for full brand creation. 


As for the “closure” dimension, that is far less resolved, as the “war against terror” continues and will continue for years if not decades. (Put aside the considerable debate over that metaphor.) The fact that we continue to debate, with passionate agony, issues like the building of the downtown mosque, demonstrates that there is ambiguity in how we see the 9/11 brand origin. And brand origins are an essential part of narratives.

So while 9/11 will continue to exert a powerful and painfully magical hold on us, its deepest level of “brand” meaning will be bathed in a level of open-endedness that is unique to American history. Ten years later, we still have the pain, but not the certainty. 

About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies