And Now a Visit From the Ghost of Recessions Past

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

The recession is now official, so now you're officially depressed. What to do? Find your opportunity.

Advertising Age knows something about rough times: We began publication less than 90 days after the crash of '29. One thing we've seen: Remarkable innovation occurs in bad times.

This could be the most brutal recession you'll see in your adult lives. Economists ruled the start date as December 2007; consensus is weak GDP growth will resume in mid-2009, with the recession officially ending sometime in the second half of '09. If true, that means this will be the longest recession since the Great Depression; the recession is half to two-thirds over; the remaining portion will be painful; and recovery will begin with the economy in a deep hole.

What's new? Maybe not so much. Note these excerpts from Ad Age editorials written during some of the last century's darkest days:

Jan. 16, 1932: "Advertising is so prominent an operating expense ... that it is certain to be under fire more than ever this year."

May 21, 1932: "Advertising is neither a luxury nor a panacea. It must be used by business because it offers the most economical and effective method of mass selling. ... If there is a better way to do the job than advertising, it is certain to be employed. Thus far that substitute for advertising has not been found."

Oct. 29, 1932: "More than one advertising executive has publicly acknowledged his debt to the Depression, admitting that it was not until the pressure of necessity exerted itself that he really found out how to get one hundred cents' worth of value from the expenditure of every advertising dollar. ... The new attitude toward advertising is not less hopeful and enthusiastic than the old -- it is only more practical and more determined."

Jan. 13, 1933: "Advertising expenditures must have some definite relationship to sales volume. ... But they must also have a relationship to sales possibilities and sales opportunities."

Oct. 29, 1973: "Surveys tell us that consumers are more pessimistic today than at any time in the past 25 years.... The proper marketing attitude for today embraces the concept that the time to do something is when others do nothing. ... Follow your own instincts; drive home your marketing advantages. ... Remain visible in hard times, and your position will be much stronger in good times."

Dec. 17, 1973: "The federal government [is] in one of its worst periods of disarray in history. ... Accurate forecasting of the year ahead is extremely troublesome. ... For the immediate future we can expect uncertainty and an accent on short-term planning."

Jan. 21, 1974: "It may come as a surprise to some to learn that business is going on, after all, despite some of the shortage-inspired gloom that is afloat. ... A lot of companies, faced with at least the same or even worse problems than most, are looking at today's marketplace as one of opportunity."

Dec. 23, 1974: "Price and value are today's preeminent copy platforms. Advertising that explains value ... serves to strengthen the consumer's confidence and build sales. ... The lesson to be learned from 1974 ... is when advertising is summoned forth to create and hawk fancied differences or advantages for a product, or someone's unreal view of the world, it runs into very real trouble."

Jan. 13, 1975: "Heavy clouds of uncertainty hang over the economy. The nation watches nervously for signs of leadership."

Dec. 29, 1980: "Is it real or is it a mirage? Is the economy merely straining? Or is it about to blow apart?"

And on Detroit:
April 9, 1932: "In an effort to break down the apparent reluctance of many people who can afford to purchase, but are hesitating to do so, perhaps because of the fear of being thought ostentatious, some automobile advertisers are making the mistake of advancing reasons for purchasing which ... overstress the public benefit to be derived. ... [One ad said] 'Your purchase of a new car will mean needed income for many families.' ... Appeals of this kind ... have a flat and insincere ring. The [buyer] may like to feel that he is making a public contribution when he spends his money -- but his first assurance should be that he is buying something to promote his own pleasure and satisfaction."

Nov. 12, 1973: "[Detroit's] only real alternative is to initiate a crash program to switch production to smaller and more economical cars."

Sept. 14, 1981: "Detroit seems to be yearning for a return to normalcy -- in other words, selling power, glitter and emotion. ... What a waste."

Feb. 15, 1982 (after General Motors pressed suppliers -- including agencies and media -- to cut prices 2% to help GM pay for consumer rebates): "How can the world of fiction hope to match this theater of the absurd? ... GM twists arms, seemingly indifferent to the legal and moral dilemmas it creates. ... If we are going to pass the hat ... there must be other equally deserving needy corporations that have fallen on hard times. ... Airlines are prolific users of advertising these days. Shouldn't they get 'contributions,' too? Ditto the housing industry..."

Robert Jacoby, president of Ted Bates & Co., said in 1973: "Our clients just don't know what's going to happen. We've never seen anything like it before."

We've seen this before.

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