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These are the great imponderables of marketing: What do people want? More importantly, what will they want tomorrow? How do you reach them? How do you motivate them? At the very least, how do you avoid irritating them?

To explore the mindset of the American consumer at millennium's end, Advertising Age conducted a national survey of public attitudes towards brands and branding, shopping habits, technology and the Internet, and, most particularly, the practice of advertising itself.

The results are provocative:

* Advertising is no longer seen as something that must be endured, but instead is becoming an entertainment medium unto

itself. And the younger the consumer, the more positively they view all aspects of advertising.

* Nearly 75% of consumers see the use of sex in advertising increasing, and about the same percentage consider that a negative.

* People don't want to see ads everywhere; 85% of respondents expect to be overexposed to advertisements, and more than half of these respondents (62%) believe this is a negative trend.

* However, people do think advertising has its place; 94% of respondents expect advertising on the Internet to increase, and again, this trend is perceived more positively by younger consumers.

Moving snapshot

The survey was designed for Ad Age by Applied Research & Consulting, a New York-based research company specializing in branding and public opinion. In order to compare results across generations, the sample was split into discrete age demographics. To some extent, this gives a moving snapshot of attitudes that will be coming to the fore in years to come.

These age differences are apparent when comparing attitudes on branding and brand attributes.

Importantly, while the majority of people (62%) think that the current focus on brand names, labels and status symbols will increase in the next five to 10 years, there are decidedly mixed feelings about how positive this trend is.

Yet a closer look shows that the youngest age group (ages 13-17) is significantly more positive about branding than any of the other age-based cohorts, suggesting that the acceptance and even the endorsement of brands and branding may increase over time as people grow up in a more heavily branded and brand-aware environment.

The generational differences come into sharper relief in a comparison of the perceived value of various brand preferences. Overall, consumers say that in the next decade the three most important attributes that brands will want to connote are "trustworthy," "energy saving" and "recyclable."

Among the younger ages (from 13 to 35), "using the latest technology" scores second (13-17) or third (18-35), but it doesn't even show up among the top five choices for older consumers. At the same time, "simple" and "socially responsible" register high as desirable brand attributes among the older cohorts and not at all among the younger.

Clearly, many of these differences are simply a measure of maturity and life experiences. But not all -- some appear to be real differences between the younger wired generation and the older baby boomers.

Beyond branding, one of the core goals of the research was to examine the ways in which consumers think about and react to advertising.

A large majority of respondents (86%) feel that advertising and marketing icons like the Marlboro Man, Pillsbury Doughboy and Budweiser lizards will occupy an increasingly central position in the cultural mainstream.

Furthermore, as indicated by the more positive evaluation of this trend by the younger consumers, the trend will be seen as increasingly positive over time.

The survey results indicate consumers are beginning to believe advertising is taking on many of the traditional hallmarks of the entertainment industry, including in-jokes and self-referential humor.

A majority of respondents (81%) feel advertisements containing this kind of humor will increase. Again, this trend is viewed more positively by younger consumers, suggesting this conception is gaining in prominence and likely acceptance. This is not to say the picture is entirely rosy. There are still some basic concerns about the goals and methods of the advertising industry. For example, there is concern with being manipulated by sex in advertisements. Interestingly, this trend was expressed by both men and women, although women tended to be more concerned with the trend than men.

Predatory advertising

There is also concern about the potentially predatory nature of advertising, particularly with regards to niche marketing to very young children. Although 73% of the respondents expect to see an increase in marketing and advertisements directed at very young children, the majority of these (78%), regardless of age-group, feel this is a negative trend.

There are very different perspectives on niche campaigns directed at ethnic minorities, however. Overall, a majority of respondents (81%) expect to see an increase in marketing and advertisements directed at ethnic minorities. However, older consumers view this trend more negatively than younger consumers.

One possible explanation for this reflects the difference in viewpoints on how best to integrate different ethnic and cultural groups -- the older, more traditional 'melting pot,' where cultural differences are glossed over, or the more recent 'rainbow coalition,' where each group retains its unique culture (and thus, unique and targeted marketing strategies).

Across the board, most respondents (91%) expect to see an increase in the tendency for everything to be advertised and commercialized. Although the majority feel this is a negative trend, the youngest cohort (aged 13-17) was evenly split between those who view the trend positively and those who view the trend negatively, suggesting the acceptance of advertising may be on the rise.

People's conceptions of where it is appropriate to advertise can be seen in their reports of where they first hear about new products. Most of the reported exposure to new products and services occurs in what might be called "informational" space -- places people would go to get news, information or entertainment.

Although traditional media still dominate, the Internet is beginning to encroach upon traditional informational space. As can be seen in the accompanying pie charts, consumers with Internet access at home clearly use the Internet more for purchase information, cutting into more traditional media, particularly print.

It's interesting to note that even among respondents with no Internet access at home, a sizable minority mention the Internet as their initial source of information for new travel items, indicating continuing use of Web access from work or school for leisure purposes.

The downside of the Internet is suggested here as well. Increased connectivity may mean a decrease in personal space and privacy. Overall, 88% of respondents believe it will be increasingly difficult to escape from technology.

People clearly feel that privacy is under threat, and a major source of that threat is the Internet.

Eighty-six percent of all respondents believe people and organizations will increasingly want more access to personal information about customers and potential customers, and 86% of respondents feel that the decrease in privacy due to information available on the Internet will continue.

Generally good news

Overall, the survey appears to offer good news for brand-conscious marketers. The current consumer culture is increasingly reliant upon brands and brand identities, and this will only increase as those now growing up become more economically dominant.

Although care must be taken to ensure that advertising isn't seen as predatory, intrusive or manipulative, consumers are becoming ever more convinced that advertising does far more than sell us things we don't want.

Instead, it seems apparent that the trend is to see advertising as a culturally

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