Ads start to get real

More and more, they are depicting families' diversity more realistically Diversity of families reflected more often

November 23, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

A recent advertisement for American Express featured a beaming Caucasian couple sitting on a sofa holding their newly adopted Chinese baby.

The IKEA furniture store in College Park has mock room layouts specifically designed for unmarried couples moving in together, or for children from two families combining to become one after a second marriage.

And in a television spot for Friendly's restaurants, a bachelor asks a single mom and her daughter out on a first date for ice cream.

Advertising long relied on Norman Rockwell images of America because mainstream advertisers tend to be conservative, fearful of offending someone and thwarting millions in ad spending. But marketers - and their corporate clients - appear to be increasingly willing to portray, and pitch products to, a more diverse nation.

Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, advertising professionals say they sense a shift. Some say the nation's biggest companies are coming to the realization that consumers prefer seeing life situations they can relate to in ads.

Others peg the change to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a nation looking more seriously at itself. With TV sitcoms and "reality shows" portraying all manner of relationships and with urban newspapers adding wedding announcements of same-sex marriages, advertisers, some say, are just catching up with the rest of society.

Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the commonwealth must extend to gay and lesbian couples the same rights to marriage it grants to heterosexuals in a verdict that could influence other state and federal courts.

"Marketing people have to relate to the environment as it is, not how you hope it would be," said Eugene Fram, a marketing professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

"Advertising largely mirrors accepted behaviors and standards in society," said Scott Rasmussen, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Carton, Donofrio and Partners Inc., a Baltimore ad agency. "As it has loosened up in society at large, marketers feel comfortable enough to expose some of that in their marketing message. They need to be assured it's a notion in society at large before they take that risk."

America, in real life, long ago moved past Leave It to Beaver imagery that defined much consumer advertising. But the people who paid for, and created, advertising as late as a decade ago feared that portrayals seen as nontraditional would anger interest groups or repel some customers.

But that view is changing - as the country changes. U.S. Census and other data shows more singles living together, fewer couples having children, more racially mixed couples, more remarriages.

"I think there is definitely a theme in advertising to return to real people," said Samantha Ettus, a branding expert and president of Ettus Media Management in New York. "None of these images are revolutionary in real-life America. America has looked diverse for a number of years.

Years ago, an African-American model might be placed in the background of an advertisement but was rarely its focus, some executives said. Blacks today "have more of an egalitarian role rather than [being] a face in the crowd or the backseat to a more prominent group," said Jonah Bloom, executive editor for the trade publication Advertising Age. "It's more honest."

This year, Ikea Corp., the Swedish furniture company, began displaying in its showrooms custom-designed home layouts expressly made for different "types" of families.

"When two families become one, it can be a delicate balance," said a sign at the chain's new College Park store, describing a layout for a "blended" family. "Furnishing your new home together is the chance to let each of you express personal needs and desires."

A photo at the entrance shows a black man and Latino women playing Chinese checkers with what appears to be their two mixed-race children. The layout includes bunk beds and containers that fit under the coffee table to store the toys that accumulate from two families.

The model for another room, designed for a couple moving in together, shows a picture of a black woman watching her white boyfriend play a guitar. "When you first move in together, you're not just in love, you're on the threshold of a new life, and a new way of living," the inscription reads.

"The overall idea is to reflect the customers we have," said Clive Cashman, an Ikea spokesman. "That means showing all kinds of life stages and situations. What we aim to let people know is that we understand life in their home."

The shift is not just European sensibility at play: Friendly Ice Cream Corp. had a similar motivation in mind when the Massachusetts-based restaurant chain developed its "You and Me and Friendly's" television campaign in 2001.

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