If Bombs Fall, Don’t Stop the Party

March 19, 2003 | By Laura Vanderkam

Winter is finally over, and Elizabeth Smart is home, but that’s the extent of the good news these days.

War is imminent. Code orange has returned. Stocks haven’t overcome the bear-market flu. Employers cut 308,000 jobs in February, more than in any of the bleak previous 15 months.

Even worse, many people are wallowing in it. A recent Newsweek cover screams about “Anxiety and Your Brain” in anxiety-producing large letters. Anti-war protesters preach the doom-and-gloom of quagmire. On a New York subway platform the other day, a woman handed me a brochure on how I could survive an attack on the subway.

In the midst of the past many months of this, the Coors brewing company has sized up the cultural zeitgeist, shied away from blabbing about the Rockies and realized it can make a fortune selling beer with blonde, busty twins.

Yes, the lovely and often scantily clad Diane and Elaine ruled the tube and billboards across the country most of the winter, hawking Coors Light in the company’s “Love Songs” campaign. What, the company asked, do the target demographic of twentysomething men like best?

Women. Better yet, two at the same time.

It’s obvious. It’s vulgar. And it has been wildly successful. USA Today’s Ad Track survey found that more than 40% of twentysomethings liked the ads a lot, and Coors sales have sailed. Despite previous speculation that irony hooks young people, it turns out that blatant hedonism is even better. Others have figured out the same thing. Las Vegas is once again selling itself as Sin City. ABC’s Are You Hot? series forgoes all nuance and lures young viewers by parading eye candy across the screen.

Coors and friends have tapped into a backlash, all right, though not, as some have claimed about the twins ads, against women. Plenty of ads sell hedonism to women, too. These advertisers just have realized how tired young people are of the parade of pessimism.

Now, with war around the corner, companies from Pepsi to Visa are planning to pull their ads to show how sensitive they are, thinking that Americans, including the young consumers these companies crave, will be that sensitive, too. But a big chunk of the target demographic believes that if the world is ending, you may as well party. Any firm that wants its products flying off the shelves like duct tape has to reckon with this quintessentially American mood.

“People are looking for escape,” says Hagos Mehreteab, whose World2Nite Promotions company specializes in grassroots and event marketing to twentysomethings. “You turn on the TV, and there isn’t any good news. Come six or seven o’clock, people want to let loose. They don’t have as much money, but they still want to spend it.” So World2Nite has seen no reduction in the number of people who want to “dance and party away their troubles,” Mehreteab says. “You don’t necessarily see the same downturn as you see across other sectors.”

Las Vegas has cast its bets on this same mood. This year, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority ditched a decade of pitching the city as a family-friendly-Disney-with-slots destination for a TV campaign whose tagline promises, “What happens here, stays here.” Vegas story lines that made the cut, Advertising Age reported, include a car full of young women teasing the driver for hooking up with a juggler, and a businesswoman drunkenly marrying a boy who was probably a teenager.

The backlash also has helped make Cancun the top foreign spring-break destination, where thousands of high school and college students these past few weeks have been boozing it up on the beach. Tour operators dropped all hints of pretense this year and lured students with promises of lower and rarely enforced drinking ages. “Benefits of going to Cancun are many,” StudentSpringBreak.com promises, “but most students just care about the abundance of alcohol, alcohol and wait, you guessed it, more alcohol.” After a fall-off in travel last year, the masses are back, drinking until the Coors twins become quadruplets.

Not everyone sees this hedonism as a great way to spend our time of national reckoning. Writes Anna Quindlen in Newsweek, “The Arab world could be forgiven for thinking that what’s on the tube today forecasts the end of a culture as surely as the orgies of ancient Rome or the self-indulgence of the last dauphins did.” Sally Bowles sang in Cabaret that there’s “No use permitting some prophet of doom to wipe every smile away,” but the parties of her 1920s Berlin kept her from seeing the disaster on the horizon and getting out. Better to buckle down, say the spoilsports, get one’s affairs in order and buy plastic sheeting for these pre-apocalyptic days.

But young Americans never have been capable of such sobriety. “There’s the old saw about stock markets and hemlines” falling together, says Neil Howe, co-author with William Strauss of Generation X tome 13th-Gen. “But precisely because people are becoming more cautious, you can understand a desire to segment off and assert your own alternative lifestyle.” In that lifestyle, calamity is an aberration, not the norm—and no reason to stop the party.

Pew Research Center polls show a constant 15-point optimism gap between the percentage of Americans under 30 satisfied with the state of the country and those over 50. Americans, Tocqueville wrote, are “forever falling to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged.” When you are young, it is always morning in America, and indeed often a drunken and wonderful moment in the very wee hours.

So here in New York, people sing karaoke in bars near the World Trade Center site and take the train home late, even as authorities monitor transit employees for evidence of biological attacks. While President Bush gave Saddam Hussein a 48-hour ultimatum, St. Patrick’s Day partiers kept reveling in the streets. We may be going to war, and the world may be ending, but at least you can enjoy yourself in the meantime. Twins and casino stories make happier customers than features on anxiety and your brain.

Happy customers make the cash registers ring faster than those huddling, duct-taped, inside their homes.

Coors and Vegas get it. Spring-break tours get it. Given the shot in the arm the economy needs, other advertisers need to get it, too.