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March 23rd, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Using patriotic symbols to sell cars and trucks

Freethought San Marcos: A column

The NEW Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say, can you see, through the day and the night,

What so proudly they flew on their car lot’s tall flag pole

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, what a glorious sight,

As from the freeway we watch’d, to see what was being sold;

And the flood lights’ bright glare, from tall towers in air,

Gave proof thro’ the night that their ad was still there.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of their greed and the money they crave?

My apologies, of course, to Francis Scott Key, who penned the original words after witnessing the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1812. Since he is a distant relative of my wife, I hope there will be no ill will. In 1931, the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the official anthem of the United States. The song focuses on the United States flag as a symbol of courage and a fighting spirit that was demonstrated by 1,000 American fighters who repelled 5,000 British soldiers.

That flag has nothing whatever to do with commerce, but in recent decades huge American flags have been flown, especially at automobile dealerships, to attract attention and associate the dealership with the patriotic impulses that Key expressed in his poem. Such flags can be seen up and down interstates 35, 45, and 10 throughout Texas.

The United States Code provides, in part, that “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.” Of course, the Flag Code, as it is called, has no enforcement mechanisms, so car dealerships are free to violate this prohibition without fear of penalty.

A business might fly a huge American flag for many reasons. One is to attract attention by the sheer size of the flag. This is especially beneficial where other regulations limit the size of the advertising that can be used at the business. Apparently, oversized American flags are never regulated as other signs are, so they afford a business the opportunity to attract attention that would not otherwise be allowed.

If the giant flags that have become so ubiquitous at car dealerships are an attempt to link the business with patriotism, the effort is misguided. While patriotism has often been associated with nationalism, it is in the classic sense associated with the common good, often challenging one’s country to be the best that it can be. In the history of the United States, patriotism in its highest form has had more to do with the American ideals of devotion to humanity, to acts of kindness and charity, and especially to righting the wrongs of slavery. It has arisen from notions of individual responsibility to our fellow citizens and fulfillment of the social contract–that we live together in a mutually rewarding arrangement in which we give up complete individual freedom in exchange for a certain social and political order that allows everyone to thrive within limits.

But I suspect that the huge flags are used to attract people through the powerful emotions that have become associated with their symbolism, a symbolism closely associated with our military. The giant-flag wavers want potential customers to associate the business with unquestioned loyalty to country, with the pride of being an American, and with the notion that the United States has a divine calling to both lead and dominate the world.

The enormous flags are meant to convey a feeling that this is a place where one should shop because this business is associated with all that is good in this country. Of course, flying such a flag means nothing of the kind. It is a crass, perhaps jingoistic shortcut to sway potential buyers through emotion, rather than reason. I have long abhorred the use of our flag in such commercial displays. They dishonor true patriotism and cause many to feel that the flag has lost its true meaning through such misuse.

There have always been those who will distort our freedoms for personal gain. Such is the case with the giant-flag wavers.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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8 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Using patriotic symbols to sell cars and trucks

  1. Lamar, How can you possibly assume any car dealership that flies a flag is wrapping themselves in the flag for financial gain. It must suck to be so cynical. Against whom will you next launch a thinly veiled personal attack wrapped in the flag of ‘opinion’???

  2. Brad Rollins must be intent on never selling a major ad for this rag since he lets his premiere columnist attack every major advertiser in town. Funeral homes — check . . . auto dealers — check … what next

  3. So Money Bags, you think what? That car dealership owners are just exponentially more patriotic than everyone else? You think the Uncle Sam tax sign jugglers on the side of the road are there to support the troops? There is a difference between cynicism and being realistic. It must suck to be so blind.

  4. I love to drive down the interstate and see the waving American flags. I really don’t care who is flying the flag! It reminds me that I do live in a wonderful country. Will it make me stop and buy a car – absolutely NOT. A better article would be about the lack of respect shown by adults and children when the National Anthem is played at an event. Now that is a PROBLEM!!!

  5. This is called an opinion column because it expresses opinions. You are free to express yours, which you have done. We don’t all agree, which is one of the things that makes life interesting, and I would argue that political disagreement is an example of one of the most patriotic things we can do.

  6. I don’t agree with Lamar on much, but I am with him on this one. I have always thought that using the flag as an advetising gimmick cheepens it.

  7. I do like to see our flag waving in the breeze and I display the flag at the front of my home. But I have to agree with the author that a huge American flag waving at the front of an auto dealership just cheapens the meaning of the flag, and I feel sad to see it there. Surely the businesses can advertise without use of our American flag.

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