OP-ED: Heroism belongs in history books, not TV commercials

When Brandy Chastain ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women's World Cup, a hero was born. When Pfc. Jessica Lynch was ambushed in Iraq, one nearly died. Since returning home, she has received numerous offers to tell her story and has chosen to write a book, having this month signed a deal with Knopf. Will PR turn Jessica - or any of the dozens of brave souls forged in the crucible of war - into a celebrity spokeshero?

When Brandy Chastain ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women's World Cup, a hero was born. When Pfc. Jessica Lynch was ambushed in Iraq, one nearly died. Since returning home, she has received numerous offers to tell her story and has chosen to write a book, having this month signed a deal with Knopf. Will PR turn Jessica - or any of the dozens of brave souls forged in the crucible of war - into a celebrity spokeshero?

In World War II, many notable Hollywood celebrities joined the fight. Jimmy Stewart flew bombing missions and was highly decorated. Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, and dozens of other movie stars put their careers on hold and their lives on the line. Today, instead of Hollywood helping to supply the war effort, I fear the war effort is supplying Hollywood. Until six months ago, we hadn't fought a war we could watch in real time. Vietnam was too long ago, and the first Gulf War was quick and clean. Although there were dramatic acts of heroism, embedded reporters bringing the central characters into our living rooms did not exist. The first Gulf War, however, did give birth to the celebrity TV journalist. Peter Arnett, the courageous sage. Arthur Kent, the scud stud. Bernard Shaw, the stoic anchor. They were the link to our troops, the familiar faces we believed in, related to, and welcomed into our homes. This confluence of substantial events, new technologies, and big personalities turned CNN from a struggling sideshow into a major news network overnight. In this latest war, Arnett made his curtain call, and new star journalists took the stage, from Shepard Smith to Richard Engel. And in the age of celebrity embedded reporters, the soldier spokeshero is just a few steps away. Using spokespeople in PR is about borrowing equity. Nike shoes are better because Michael Jordan wears them. Wheaties are good because Barry Bonds eats them. The credibility, the affection, and the equity of the celebrity rub off on the product, or so the theory goes. But now, more than ever, we must distinguish between "celebrity" and "hero." A celebrity endorser raises the stature of a product. A hero endorser diminishes the stature of the hero. Charles Barkley is notorious for insisting that he is not a role model. The fact that his public persona has a powerful impact on children makes his claim debatable, but at the core he's right. He's not a role model, not a hero, not someone who should be revered. He's an athlete and an entertainer. He sells his performance in the same way Procter & Gamble sells Tide (albeit in a more exciting way). As a professional, his fame is based on selling an image of himself, and it's not a big stretch for him to sell something else - be it footwear, clothing, or barbecue grills. The same goes for any athlete or movie star. The same cannot be said of a hero. A hero becomes a hero by serving, not by selling. In past wars, such heroes received the Congressional Medal of Honor or Purple Heart, and perhaps a write-up in the paper. If their deeds were truly transcendent, we read about them in our history books. TV cameras and endorsements did not exist. Agents were not waiting in the wings to turn them into celebrities. I can hear the justification now. A company will sign a military hero to promote soda or pizza and say, "We need more young people like Sergeant Smith," or, "Private Jones has suffered enough, let him have his just reward." But a soldier's heroism doesn't just belong to the soldier. It belongs to the country and to all of us as human beings who dream of rising to the challenge, wondering if we too could selflessly summon the courage to be a hero. True heroism is an ideal, and to commercialize an ideal is profane. Let's put Jessica Lynch and heroes like her in the history books, not in the pages of Vogue or in a VNR. My kids already think "Start Me Up" is only a Microsoft jingle; I'd rather they not remember Jessica's rehabilitation "brought to us by Nike." Celebrity can be bought and sold. Heroism must be earned.
  • Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork Henderson, an ad agency based in New Mexico.

  • Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Register
    Already registered?
    Sign in

    Would you like to post a comment?

    Please Sign in or register.