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Unilever's announcement the other week that it will eliminate more than 1,000 brand names from its worldwide stockpile was a startling admission that marketers are finally running out of anything meaningful to say about many of their products.

What they do say often resonates so poorly with most consumers that their messages are falling on deaf ears. What consumers -- or viewers or readers -- want is substance, and what they're getting is too often pabulum.

Brendan Ryan, the unassuming, perspicacious head of FCB Worldwide, told me awhile back that "the most critical element in advertising is having something meaningful to say." He reminded me that David Ogilvy had a great line -- "If you've got nothing to say, sing it."

"Well, there's a whole lot of singing going on these days," Brendan said.

The good news is the same off-key songs and lyrics advertisers are trumpeting are also going flat in the high-tech world of the Internet. In ads or online, people want the same thing . . . meaning and substance.

You would think that high-tech guys like Bob Pittman of America Online and Mike Bloomberg would be touting the flash and jive of their electronic services. But at a panel session the other week at the Radio & Television News Directors Association they talked instead of such prosaic things as analysis and content.

"I don't see things like the Web solving the content problem," Mike said. "People want local information. They want to know that the guy down the street was the crook they thought him to be." And Bob Pittman made the point, "You can stare at data all you want, but what's it telling me?" What people need and want is more analysis to make sense of all the stuff they're bombarded by. "People don't buy technology," Bob said at one point. "They buy benefits."

In my talk with Brendan Ryan, he said former Kraft General Foods North America chief Dick Mayer espoused these basic new product instructions: 1) Find out what people want; 2) build it into the product; and 3) let them know the product delivers. Sometimes the process isn't very high tech. Kids want more cheese in Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

"It's up to us to say it in a creative way," Brendan says.

That's not as easy as it sounds. Even when companies come up with breakthrough products, such as Colgate's Total toothpaste or Gillette's Mach3 shaving system, they use retro ads out of the '50s to convey the benefits. And marketers revive Mr. Whipple and the Jolly Green Giant to restore the luster of a bygone era.

Was advertising more effective in the days of Rosser Reeves' Unique Selling Proposition or were they simpler times? Supermarkets today are clogged with me-too products, and their makers don't know how to differentiate them, not only to the consumer but to themselves as well.

Procter & Gamble works hard to get great advertising for its flagship Tide detergent. Then its biggest customer, Wal-Mart Stores, introduces a private label knock-off of Tide at a lower price. Wal-Mart, of course, knows every marketing move Tide is going to make -- new variations, bottle sizes, promotions, price cuts -- so P&G goes into battle with one arm tied behind its back.

P&G is finding it more and more difficult to eke out volume gains at supermarkets and drug stores, its traditional distribution points. It's no coincidence its two most recent acquisitions, Iams pet food and Pur water filtration systems, aren't sold in supermarkets.

The battle for shelf-space is becoming too intense in marketers' old product lines. Or consumer lifestyles are changing and they don't want to buy the old product lines. For all these reasons, Kellogg the other week announced it was buying Worthington Foods, which markets veggie burgers and other non-meat products. And Heinz just bought a stake in Hain Food Group, which puts it in the natural and organic food business.

So marketers at the Association of National Advertisers confab this week have much to talk about. What do you say about a product that consumers don't already know and that they care about? Campbell Soup discovered "soup is good food" (even less than "mmmm, mmmm good") fails to ring the bell anymore with either consumers or the stock market.

Too many brands, too little to say. That's not a very promising combination for

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