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Forget AIG, Mortgage Lenders: Crisis Is Fault of Shops, Media

New Harris Poll 'Blames the Messenger,' Says Americans Coaxed Into Buying Things They Couldn't Afford

By Published on . 3

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It isn't banks, insurers or even themselves that some consumers are blaming for circumstances that led to the current downturn: It's ad agencies and the media.

In a new Harris Interactive poll called "absurd" by several industry players, 66% of Americans said they believe advertising agencies bear at least some responsibility for the economic situation because they "caused people to buy things they couldn't afford." And one-third shouldered agencies with "complete responsibility" or "a great deal of responsibility" for the current economy. Print media, such as newspapers and magazines, were deemed in the poll to bear at least some responsibility by almost three in five Americans (59%), while 56% of Americans said news and other information websites wield at least some responsibility for the economic crisis.

The poll was conducted online within the U.S. March 31 and April 1 among 2,220 adults age 18 and over. The question asked was, "How much responsibility, if any, should the following groups take for the current economic crisis because they caused people to buy things they couldn't afford?"

Consumers' choices in the poll were advertising agencies; print media (e.g. newspapers and magazines); news and other information websites; talk shows on TV or radio; cable news programs; network and local news programs; or friends and family.

Harris Interactive did not respond by press time to a question asking why other choices such as "mortgage lenders" and/or "banks" were not offered.

The findings come despite the obvious irony that advertising and media have been deeply affected by the economy, with massive layoffs at ad agencies and the folding of dozens of newspapers, including such prominent daily titles as the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News, the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the 174-year-old Ann Arbor (Mich.) News, which will fold in July.

Blaming the messenger
The American Association of Advertising Agencies was unable to comment at deadline, but observers said this is clearly a case of blaming the messenger. Adam Armbruster, partner in the Red Bank, N.J., broadcast TV consultancy Eckstein, Summers, Armbruster & Co., said one can't blame an ad agency -- or the advertiser -- for consumer over-spending.

"The advertiser's job is the most difficult and risky," Mr. Armbruster said. "They have to spend their dollars in advance of the received revenues from the advertising campaign. The much-lauded 'science of advertising' is overblown," he said. "People are already on the hunt to buy. Advertising only helps a consumer to choose a specific brand, and maybe where to buy it."

He added, "Advertisers and their advertising agencies are no more responsible for a consumer overspending than are car dealers for selling cars to people that can't drive them."

The survey findings are "absurd," said Elayne Rapping, a professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in media culture and pop culture. "What most annoys me about this whole response to the economic situation is that the media actually leads folks to place their anger at anyone and everyone except the real culprits -- the financiers who created the debacle and the system itself that allowed it."

Agencies have gained visibility
The poll noted that, traditionally, respondents have used such a forum to blame the media, but not necessarily ad agencies. Advertising agencies "are normally under the radar screen. Now, thanks to television shows like 'Mad Men' and 'Trust Me,' they are slightly more visible and they are an easy scapegoat," according to Harris Interactive.

The 66% was broken up by 33% of respondents who believe ad agencies should take "some" responsibility, 26% who said "a great deal of responsibility" and 7% who responded "complete responsibility."

Harris Interactive also noted an age divide. People age 55 and older are more likely to blame media and advertising agencies. Those aged 18-34 are less likely to say these six groups have at least some responsibility. For example, 75% of the older age group said advertising agencies have at least some responsibility, compared to 60% of 18- to 34-year-olds. When it comes to print media, two-thirds of those age 55 and older said print bears at least some responsibility, while only half of the younger age group (51%) said print media has some responsibility.

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