SINCE 'AD AGE' RANKINGS WERE FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE '50S, AUTOS, FOOD AND DRUGS HAVE POWERED THE ADVERTISING ENGINE: MARKETING ELITE

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The annual listing of Advertising Age's 100 Leading National Advertisers, when viewed historically, is marketing's equivalent to the species' rise from the primordial ooze.

Composition of today's 100 Leaders reflects a marketing world fixed on autos, computers, services and entertainment, far removed from the first Advertising Age list published 44 years ago.

Back then, spending on solitary brands like Admiral, Norge and Bendix, Simoniz, Sunbeam and Sylvania often was the reason parent companies become top spenders in 1955. Only 34 in the first Ad Age spending chart were in the latest running (in 1998) of the Leaders. A few have not survived in any form.

Yet, from that earlier industrial-based economy, flushed with consumerism, to the service-oriented economy of today, a thread runs through the list -- namely categories for auto, food and drugs. Albeit, these core categories have undergone a dramatic evolution: Auto is now global and largely foreign-based; food is multiple-product advertising within conglomerates rather than solitary brands from single product-line companies; drugs are more personal care/prescription-based than toiletries/over-the-counter remedies of just a few years ago.

In sheer numbers, the composite ad totals for the Leaders through the years have increased 31-fold, from an aggregate $1.85 billion to $58 billion today. The media mix has been a big factor. (Ad totals for Leaders include measured media and unmeasured spending.) Measured media in 1955 included newspapers, magazines, farm and business publications, outdoor, network radio and network TV; by 1998 the mix had broadened to spot TV, syndicated TV, cable TV, spot radio, Yellow Pages, Sunday magazines, national newspapers and Internet. Unmeasured (sales promotion, direct response, etc.) has remained fairly consistent, from 39% of total advertising in 1955 to nearly 42% in 1998.

At the top, the annual list contains one sure axiom: If you're not Procter & Gamble Co., GM or Philip Morris, you don't belong there. Its a virtual divine right that one of these three top the list, for none other has reached the pinnacle.

And it's really a P&G show. The marketer first reached the throne in 1963, replacing General Motors Corp.; it held that position 24 years when usurped by Philip Morris Cos., and regained the spot for a seven-year run beginning in 1990. GM then rode to the top in the last ranking.

While the chart reflects marketing's glorious march toward bigger and still bigger ad outlays, spending has had its valleys, particularly two recession years -- 1970 and 1991.

In 1970, the 100 Leaders' spending total fell an aggregate 0.6%. Reduced sales and profits had a disastrous effect on advertising. At P&G, where new products were its lifeblood, no new product reached national distribution during the year. Its advertising slipped 4%.

The economic malaise of the next few years reached its nadir in 1973, when the OPEC oil embargo brought gas shortages, double-digit inflation and consumer uncertainty. Oil companies, cashing in on high prices and windfall profits, pared ad spending to the bone and gladly exited the Leaders' chart for the safety of anonymity.

Buyouts within the 100 list have been major building blocks for ad growth. This is particularly visible at the top: P&G broke GM's hold on No. 1 in 1963 by acquiring J.A. Folger & Co. (thereby inheriting its ad dollars). P&G that year grew 43.6% in ad spending.

Philip Morris used acquisitions to pass P&G in 1987. It bought General Foods Corp., a three-time top 100 bridesmaid, in 1985 and got down to boosting GF's slumping sales with advertising in 1987. It retained the No. 1 post the following year, buying heavy ad spender Kraft Foods.

P&G brushed past Phillip Morris in 1990 with ad spending of $2.28 billion, up 26.8% -- growth credited in part to acquisitions, Noxell Corp. and Max Factor.

Over time, most Leaders have become part of other Leaders. Few have eased back into the ooze.

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