Push for world ads has price: the bland leading the bland

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Phil dusenberry doesn't like the idea of taking a world-class U.S. brand and making it "a local pipsqueak" in other countries around the world.

But with all the troubles in the Middle East these days, I don't think it's such a bad idea for big American brands to blend in with the local scenery. Just as we as a nation can't impose our notions of democracy and capitalism on the world, U.S. marketers can't impose our lifestyles on consumers outside the U.S.

Mr. Dusenberry, the leadoff speaker at this year's Association of National Advertisers annual conference in Laguna Niguel, talked of media convergence and other factors giving rise to "a powerful new force, the global consumer." The U.S. TV show "Baywatch," he said, has become the most watched TV show in the world. "Makes you proud, doesn't it," he quipped (at least I think it was a quip. What was definitely a quip was his opening line: "Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.")

But the more U.S. media and entertainment try to impose a homogeneous viewpoint on the world, the more some citizens dig in their feet to preserve local cultures. USA Today reported a few small towns in Italy are designating themselves "slow cities" to insulate themselves from the ravages of U.S. influence. "We're defending against the risk of all these towns becoming alike. We're defending them against the threats which are imposed by globalization. We're defending the value of time," said the mayor of one of the go-slow cities.

Mr. Dusenberry, chairman of BBDO, New York, worries that creating different ads for different countries will lead to "pathetic pabulum." My feeling is marketers that try to produce cookie-cutter commercials across the world rely on such broad generalizations about the human condition that they are creating pabulum of their own. I fear too many U.S. marketers create ads for consumption here with an eye towards running them around the world, and that's why so much U.S. advertising is trying to appeal to the broadest common denominator, the elusive global consumer.

Mr. Dusenberry said Gillette is a company that runs worldwide campaigns. That to me explains why commercials for its Mach 3 shaving system look like a slice of life from the 1950s. Colgate-Palmolive is another that seems to gear ads for another era, a way of life its marketers must think is representative of the rest of the world (where Colgate gets most of its business).

Another speaker at the ANA confab, the new head of Procter & Gamble, talked of marketers needing to "rethink what brands stand for. Consumers want brands to have more of a personal relationship." The P&G executive, Alan G. Lafley, mentioned several times giving consumers "a delightful experience," but that kind of customization is not very conducive to global solutions. Mr. Lafley wants Procter brands to become "trusted advisers" to consumers, but surely that trust and advice must be built differently depending on the locale.

Nike also wants to develop a relationship with its consumers, and in a new program it's trying to do it not on a global basis, not even on a national basis, but block-by-block in urban neighborhoods.

"It's all about connecting the corporate household brand name with the right kids on the street," the head of N5, a marketing company that develops street-level tactics for Nike and others, told the Los Angeles Times. "We get the company in touch with the right `taste-maker' kids," the kids that influence others in their local neighborhoods. And Nike doesn't want to come across as a giant, monolithic company.

Mr. Lafley, in his speech to the ANA, declared the advertising industry was undergoing "revolutionary change." Consumer expectations are changing, he said. To me that means marketers must deal with them as unique individuals, and definitely not as part of some kind of communal world order.

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