COUNTDOWN TO 2000;HOPES, FEARS ABOUT NEW ERA;SHOP'S RESEARCH FINDS PARADOX IN PUBLIC'S TAKE ON MILLENNIUM

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We know there will be lots of noise sur-rounding the millennium and all that it signifies.

But it's not known whether consumers will be caught up in the madness of it all. As a result, it's not a given that advertising and promotion campaigns tied to the culture of the millennium will motivate consumers to buy or will add value to our brands.

While the media are hyping the new millennium, the consumer may only be planning what they will be doing the night of December 31, 1999. Yet, we know something is happening in consumers' minds. But what exactly?

COUNTDOWN BEGINS

In 1995, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising began the first leg of a research project on the new millennium-a countdown to the year 2000.

This first step was designed to help us understand how people in different age segments feel about the year 2000: Is it just another year, or does it evoke some strong feelings about the future?

Since then, we have conducted two quantitative measures, using a national probability sample, to gauge the extent of feelings about the millennium and any changes in attitudes. We will be conducting this study this year and in 1998, and more frequently in 1999.

So far, here's what we know.

We learned that consumers are a bit awed and excited to be a part of this change in time, and that people viewed the year 2000 as a strong "age marker." When people imagined what their lives would be like in the future, they spun forward to 2000.

CURIOUS COMBINATION

More interestingly, though, we discovered a curious combination of hope and cynicism that captures what the new millennium represents to our consumers.

On the one hand, consumers expressed almost a romantic wish that the millennium would usher in a new beginning. There was a powerful desire to feel that society could enact meaningful changes.

But, at the same time, we found that consumers downplayed the potential positives a new millennium could symbolize. Respondents are reluctant to believe that complex issues such as poverty, hunger, war and the widening gap between rich and poor will change much between now and the millennium.

This skepticism became more evident in our survey research. We found even stronger confirmation that the reality of what people actually expect to happen is clouded with cynicism or indifference. Despite the romantic notions respondents collectively held about the post-2000 era, less than a quarter of them felt excited by the coming of a new millennium and the changes it would bring. They do not feel there would be something special or magical about this time.

As part of the survey, we asked respondents to rate a host of adjectives that could be used to describe the millennium, from "excited" to "apprehensive." None of these words, positive or negative, generated a strong response. In fact, the highest-rated word was "curious," with only 39% of respondents saying it described their feelings. Rankings of the other adjectives were at 30% or less (see chart at left).

The only time a majority of respondents agreed about a perspective on the millennium was when 63% said they never or rarely give it much thought.

Naturally, these are measures we'll be watching as 2000 approaches.

We see this odd combination of feelings as representing the age-old struggle between the longing for a perfect world coupled with our innate human drive to reality-test.

Nearly all the images of the future we've lived with, from Jules Verne works to "The Jetsons" to last summer's "Independence Day," have presented an idealized vision of the future-or at the very least, the triumph of good over evil.

These visions are emerging because of the time-and-age-marker nature of 2000. At this time, more than at any other point in time, we are at a possible intersection of a dream and a reality. It's very exciting to think about the new millennium in this way, and it's these wishes that account for the optimism.

But, the reality of our lives tells us that just because a date changes, it doesn't mean that society, the world or our own lives will change.

POWERFUL WISH

The wish in all of us to see the future as a bright place is powerful. At the end of the 19th century, it was reported that there was an upsurge in optimism and that the end of the century was a time of great positive change. If history repeats itself, promotions and advertising based on the promise of the millennium will resonate with consumers and will work harder toward building links between consumers and brands.

If, however, the cynical side of the equation is where we end up, it is probable that advertising and promotional efforts based on the millennium will not motivate consumers. These programs will be met with the same cynicism and lack of interest we see today.

We don't know which way moods will swing as the calendars approach the end of 1999. We do know that none of us have experienced a change from one millennium to the next and few of us have experienced a change in centuries.

So, the promise of what the millennium represents could make wishes come true.

Ms. Kelley is exec VP-director, strategic planning at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.

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