(Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg News)
By Stuart Elliott
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
NEW YORK: For more than a year, banks, insurance companies and brokerage firms have been running campaigns that address the tumultuous economic conditions. Now, they have company.
Purveyors of products that are unrelated to finance are getting into the act, placing advertisements that seek to take advantage of the attention the public is paying to Wall Street and the credit crisis.
"Life hurts. Laughs help" is the theme of an online campaign for HBO Video, part of the HBO unit of Time Warner, which sells DVDs of comedy series like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Flight of the Conchords."
The campaign cites several situations that require a sense of humor. One, for example, is: "You just opened up a mutual fund. That falls more often than your toddler." The campaign is by Venables Bell & Partners in San Francisco.
Brooks Brothers is running ads in newspapers that reprint a 1942 pitch about the retailer's suits. "It pays to buy at Brooks Brothers," the vintage ad said, because the most economical clothes "are those that are made to last."
"Just as our ad stated in the 1940s," the current ad declares, "during these uncertain times, Brooks Brothers is still the investment you can trust."
Marketers outside the financial services industry have been running campaigns for several months that are inspired by the faltering economy. Those ads present products as smart buys because they offer value for money, but do not refer directly to why shoppers may be pinching pennies.
The new ads, by contrast, invoke news headlines in a tactic that is known in marketing as borrowed interest, which hopes to gain attention by riding the coattails of important and topical events.
For instance, television commercials from Walt Disney Co., selling tickets for the Broadway musical "Mary Poppins," feature members of the audience who make remarks like, "You think of everything going on in the world, and it just becomes magic," and "So well worth the money, and the uplifting of the spirit in these difficult times."
Ads that play off the financial news can be risky, because the losses involved - of retirement nest eggs, money, jobs - are no laughing matter.
"It's a fine balance," said Dean Crutchfield, a branding consultant in New York.
On one hand, "people are having difficulty," Crutchfield said, but on the other, "it's too big an opportunity to miss."
The best approach is to "find out if it works with your target audience" before producing the campaign, "otherwise, it can blow up in your face."
One marketer, Volkswagen of America, has decided that referring to the economy in new ads inspired by current conditions - which will reintroduce a lease promotion called Sign Then Drive - would not fit with its brand image.
"It would be inconsistent with the tonality" of Volkswagen ads, said Tim Ellis, vice president for marketing in Herndon, Virginia, which "take a 'Singin' in the Rain' standpoint regardless of the economic climate - always optimistic and positive."
Volkswagen had planned to bring back the promotion in November, said Mark Barnes, chief operating officer, "but when we saw the, shall we say, exodus of leasing from the market, we saw an opportunity to bring it forward" to last Friday.
Another marketer shying from mentioning the economy in economy-themed ads is Burger King, which has commercials with its King character playing Robin Hood: He puts money back into the pockets of customers who buy items from the BK Value Menu.
The intent is to play down the problem and play up that "we have a solution," said Rob Reilly, partner and co-executive creative director at the Burger King agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, in Boulder, Colorado, and Miami, part of MDC Partners.
"The problem is out there every day," Reilly said. "Do you really need to make a point of it?"
Some agencies are not as reluctant.
Wikreate, an agency in San Francisco, even gave a recent "Celebrate the Crisis" party. Attendees were asked to shred the financial sections of newspapers and toss the scraps over their shoulders while shouting, "Crisis, schmisis!"
"The crisis is part perception, part reality," said Ezequiel Trivino, founder and president at Wikreate (pronounced "we create"). "If we are optimists, if we feel we can get out of the crisis, it will be less prevalent."
Besides, he added, laughing, the party was organized to "celebrate in the least-expensive way we can."
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