Commentary by Rance Crain


Marketers' Message Must Be Strong Enough to Seize Consumer Attention

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Maybe this time we can't count on advertising to help our economic recovery.

And it's just as well. Although the

Rance Crain, editor in chief, 'Advertising Age'

Previous Columns.
economy is showing a few feeble signs of recovery, advertising, as usual, still lags behind. A forecast by Zenith Optimedia Group predicts ad spending in the seven biggest ad markets, including the U.S., will drop by 1.9% this year, a cloudier outlook than the 0.7% decline Zenith had initially predicted in December.

The reason: Corporate profits haven't improved enough to budget increased ad spending. The same thing happened in the last recession in the early '90s.

Ad spending lags behind
The U.S. economy was in expansion mode from late 1982 until the beginning of 1990. Ad spending normally lags behind an economic downturn and was actually up 3.9% in 1990. The next year ad revenues dipped 1.6% in the biggest decline since 1942, the first full year of World War II for the U.S. The only year in between with a drop was 1961's 0.8% decline.

Robert S. Coen, the ad prognosticator at McCann-Erickson for many years, said, "The disruption in ad programs in 1991 was so sudden and severe that

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it now seems reasonable to regard it as an aberration."

Last year, on a much bigger base than in the early '90s, ad spending was off a mind-numbing 6.5%, the biggest decline since 1938's 8.1%. We carried a headline in the fall of last year saying the "ad fall may be worst since Depression."

These numbers lead me to believe that top management is more unconvinced than ever that advertising can make a positive contribution to sales and profits. One of the problems is that advertising is only the messenger; marketers need a barnburner of a message to trumpet before advertising can play its part.

Patriotic duty
Look what happened when General Motors came up with its 0% financing idea, and backed it with its "Let's keep America rolling" ad barrage. You can criticize GM for taking advantage of the 9/11 carnage by using a patriotic theme to push the metal, but I am increasingly convinced that consumers did indeed consider it their patriotic duty to keep spending -- at least for a while. That explains why the economy showed more buoyancy than anybody thought after 9/11 (except, of course, for travel and entertainment) and is showing signs of tapering off now.

"Consumers are very confused," said Lynn Greenberg, who runs her own research company, at the Advertising Research Foundation's annual conference the other week. She noted a survey in February and March found consumers are rethinking expenditures and becoming more conservative on large purchases -- even as the consumer confidence index continues to rise. At the same meeting, a presentation by researcher RoperASW noted that high optimism, about the country and about ourselves, and high levels of patriotism are holding from a survey taken a week after 9/11.

All that's missing is a good reason to buy. And advertising without that reason to buy won't play much of a part in the recovery.

A friend called me from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to tell me about a great outdoor sign he had just seen -- one guaranteed to revitalize the recovery: "Nude girls, free food, 24 hours. Come on in."

He considered it his patriotic duty to investigate further.

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