The ravages of 9/11, the busted stock market, corporate and religious scandals, the recession and the Iraqi war have combined to create a feeling of anxiety and disconnect among American consumers. Yet American advertisers are desperately looking for new ways to entice customers at a time when old ways might work best.
That, to me, was the overriding theme from the American Association of Advertising Agencies conference in New Orleans this month. (That and ad agencies' conviction that consultants such as Al Ries, author of "The Rise of Public Relations and the Fall of Advertising," are taking "cheap shots" at the ad business-even though agencies use PR widely for their own new-business efforts.)
At the Four A's conference we heard Bill Lamar, senior VP-chief marketing officer of McDonald's, say that McDonald's needed a complete overhaul of its marketing efforts. "The traditional methods of marketing are losing their power to change consumer behavior," Mr. Lamar said. "We are challenging ourselves and our agencies to seek new, innovative ways to reach the consumer"-like an online game and wireless Internet access at McDonald's outlets.
But new research by Yankelovich Partners indicates to me that the fast-food chain is barking up the wrong tree. J. Walker Smith, president of the research firm, told the Four A's that consumers are not pessimistic but are experiencing "an undercurrent of anxiety." This, he said, is the "new normalcy of the marketplace," one that fosters "an intense craving for comfort and connection." For instance, Mr. Smith said, almost half the people polled said they "feel overwhelmed by all the stuff I own." They yearn for a quieter, simpler life. And, he said, they crave "shared memories" and are very caught up in nostalgia.
Here's where McDonald's and the Yankelovich findings diverge. During his presentation, Mr. Lamar showed great old McDonald's commercials, including "Two all beef patties" for the Big Mac and the greatest McDonald's campaign of all time, "You deserve a break today." Mr. Lamar was asked if McDonald's would ever revive any of those spots, and he replied that "nostalgia is not going to bring them back to our restaurants." Even Chairman Keith Reinhard of McDonald's agency DDB Worldwide told me he wants to go forward with new stuff (although he admitted that college kids seem to respond very positively to the old commercials).
I asked Mr. Smith of Yankelovich if he thought McDonald's was on the right track in its search for a new direction. He said he didn't think they were because people want what gives them "comfort and is familiar," such as old-time characters and slogans. "Now is not the ideal time to learn something completely new. Doing too much, too new right now is asking people to use too much energy and to take too much risk."
McDonald's may think its old spots wouldn't give its younger patrons comfort because the old ads wouldn't seem familiar. Good point. But under the current McDonald's creative direction, "Forever young," it would be effective to morph the old "you deserve a break " spots into brand new ones, showing that the same values and emotions that endeared McDonald's to another generation are still applicable today.