Rekindling desire

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We've neglected consumer desire. That's why consumers are taking an extended holiday in this recession. Why the Web was wiped out overnight. Why many Christmas retailers and resorts have gone into mourning.

Today's advertising is so busy looking over its shoulder to see what analysts are saying about its company's stock value, and what its competitors are saying in their ads, that the consumer has been left out of the loop. It offers savings and discounts but little pizzazz to make us want to get the product into our hands as soon as we possibly can. Passion of ownership and ecstasy of use take a back seat.

Today's consumers are disenchanted with goods and services per se and long only for that usurper of mass consumption-money. Let's face it. We've become a nation of money collectors now. We've given up the sheer joy of gathering goods. The excitement is all in the extended credit, the colossal savings, and no payments until 2003-not in the products themselves.

Back in the `70s, I wrote an article for Journal of Marketing called "The Synchronistic Theory of Advertising." It said the function of advertising was to speed up mass consumption to keep it in balance with mass production. Mass equals speed, and we'd better make sure consumers are primed to acquire the fruits of the advanced economy. The balancing act between manufacturer supply and consumer demand is not advertising's job anymore. That's done by just-in-time production, delivery and zero financing. Today's advertising often seems to punish consumers, not praise them or encourage them to trade up to better and better things.

Where are the sexologists who steered our sublimated drives toward metal and plastic beauties? Where is Dichter, the dean of motivation? Ogilvy, the king of image? Reeves, the scientist of unique selling propositions? And Ries, the perpetrator of positioning? Do we pay court to any of them? Do we even know them or what they stood for?

This perhaps explains why so many ads today have joined the entertainment industry. TV has sports entertainment, courtroom entertainment, news entertainment. Now it has its share of corporate entertainment. They often treat their business as such a huge joke; the brand, the brand benefit, and even its name are drowned in laughter. Some ads tell riddles. They keep us all guessing what it's for and even who made it until way past the end. Other ads congratulate and self-congratulate. They hand out awards. They preen and pose and patronize.

Ads have become their own currency. They are not cost-efficient, pro-active marketing tools anymore. Some advertisers have handed their production over to Hollywood. Hollywood revels in the opportunity to direct commercial epics with casts of thousands, special effects and mini dramas, but "Where's the beef?" Advertising production costs must be the most inflationary in the entire economy. As the pioneer retailer John Wanamaker is credited with saying, "We know half of our advertising is wasted ..." But this is ridiculous!

house of cards

Why then, do we ask, did the Web industry collapse like a house of cards? Did no one know what the sites were for and what really was the unique benefit? Were we expected to become a nation of stay-at-homes and give up our personal transportation, our highways and our malls?

Super affluence has bred a very cost-conscious, non-brand conscious consumer. After a dozen mergers, it's difficult to maintain a semblance of brand identity. When commoditization sets in and everything is a necessity, there's not much excitement left. The only concern is, "How much?" We're back to Adam Smith and his bushels of wheat. Price and price promotion have taken over from benefit promotion in the marketing mix.

But advertising works best when it is building consumer awareness, trial- and repeat-use in brand-new industries for new products and services that people have only imagined before. With the surge in technological productivity, fewer and fewer people need to be employed in agriculture, manufacturing and now in services. What work will we all do? Expand what we have already begun, providing new experiences, new cultural opportunities, new spiritual programs, new environmental revolutions and many other new fields. The number of personal coaches just went up 1,000% in five years. There's a museum-building boom going on in the South. Today's Web surfers want religious information more than auctions or banks. Even box-car city has embarked on a fast-track manufacturing program to reintroduce America to sleek, sexy, "got to have one" new models. This is advertising's new frontier, getting people to want to buy what they have never had before.

The synchronistic theory was right. Advertising does do a balancing act between mass production and mass consumption, supply and demand. It just changed its direction 180 degrees. Now we must get out of reverse to fast forward and create real, new wealth for demanding consumers.

Stephen J. Unwin, a former international advertising executive and advertising educator, is president, Business Dynamics, Kingwood, Texas, an advertising and marketing consultancy ([email protected]).

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