Ads Face Up To Hard Times, Put Emphasis On Hope, Staying Power

August 09, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

The new ad campaign from Liberty Mutual features a shaken father sharing his anxiety about losing his job. Another TV commercial reminds viewers that Allstate was founded in the darkest days of the Great Depression. And the latest spot from American Express opens on this note: "During times like these, it seems like the world will never be the same."

Viewers turning to TV for an evening of escape from the gloom of the Great Recession have been finding something else altogether lately: more and more such ads reminding them of our economic woes. What makes this trend seem all the more improbable is the conventional wisdom that says TV ads should accentuate the positive and ignore the negative.

So, why is this bedrock belief honed and codified over the past six decades by Madison Avenue and the TV industry suddenly being cast aside?

"You can't be living in this world of today and just operate as if it's business as usual," says John Patterson, creative director of MGH Inc., an advertising agency based in Baltimore. "The economy reached a point where you couldn't ignore what you knew was on everyone's mind."

Warren Brown, the founder of the Washington-based Cake Love chain of seven shops featured in the American Express TV ad campaign, also believes the harsh economic times have to be acknowledged to have any hope of a credible message these days.

"I got sick and tired of people who were resisting the reality of the economic situation," says Brown, whose firm includes a shop in Canton. "Only when you acknowledge the problem can you find a solution. Sticking your head in the sand is not the way you work through a time like this to something better."

The American Express ad, which is titled "Small-Business Owners Anthem," does point to better days ahead, quickly moving from its somber opening to the words, "But there is a light beginning to shine again. The spark began where it always begins. At a restaurant downtown. In a shop on Main Street. ..."

The front of a Cake Love shop fills the screen as the word "shop" is sounded in voice-over. And then, powerful images of Brown and his cake-baking team at work merge with those of other small-business owners and workers, as the voice-over says, "This is just the beginning of the reinvention of business."

Leslie Berland, director of corporate communications for American Express, explains the company's goal for the ad, saying, "American Express has a long-standing relationship with small-business owners across the country and, through this ad, we wanted to spotlight the critical role they play not only in their communities but in driving economic recovery."

Themes of recovery and reinvention are sounded in several of the hard-times-come-to-prime-time TV commercials - creating a story arc that moves from the troubled place in which the nation now finds itself to a feel-good promise of a new tomorrow.

"You know what America needs right now?" a narrator asks rhetorically at the start of a General Motors TV ad featuring citizens and employees wearing baseball hats inside-out with their brims snapped up in the style of fans who are rooting for a rally. "America needs a comeback. So let's put on our rally caps and dig in, because we can do this if we all start thinking differently. At GM, we're reinventing the entire company. ..."

The ad is stuffed with images of Little Leaguers playing baseball, proud parents in the stands, sun-splashed early-morning coffee shop windows, moms loading groceries in their new cars and dads happily shaking hands with business partners in the workplace - images of an abundant America so at odds with what the country feels like today.

"Both the GM and the American Express commercials have a rallying aspect to them - they provide a jingoistic jolt," says Abe Novick, a former executive at the Euro RSCG global agency who now writes about advertising as pop culture at abenovick .com.

"They're both part capitalism and part patriotism," explains Patterson, of Baltimore's MGH advertising agency. "There's a realization that the Obama administration can only do so much. Other people have to start helping to turn things around. And so much is perception-based. Those ads [are] not just branding their companies, they're branding the country."

Comparing the American Express commercial to the late Hal Riney's legendary "Morning in America" TV ads for Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign, the Baltimore ad executive says, "I mean, you know they're selling. But it almost makes you tingle like you're proud to be an American."

Brown says he has seen nothing to compare with the passionate responses of some of the people who have seen the ad and told him of their feelings: "There's something deeper happening. It's like that commercial uncorked all the pessimism people are feeling, and now it's like maybe we are moving around a bend and you can have faith."

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