Byline: Georgia Lee

Welcome to the bland new world of advertising 2002. After pushing the envelope for the last decade, controversy is now risky business, shock has no value and even sex, the old standby, doesn’t always sell.
If, as many experts insist, advertising has become bland, it’s easy to see why. First, the 2001 recession squeezed clients to cut costs, with advertising an easy target. As ad revenues plummeted, consolidation and layoffs rippled through the industry. To make matters worse, high-rolling dot-coms that pumped millions into lavish, creative campaigns a few years ago became bursting dot-bombs that decimated the entire advertising community.
Spending declines for 2001 in almost all media ranged from 8 to 20 percent, according to a spokesperson at advertising agency Universal McCann. Spending on online ads alone dropped to $7.4 billion in 2001, from $8.2 billion in 2000, according to a study released by the New Media Group at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“The industry is in a state of shock,” said Marc Gobe, president, Desgrippes Gobe, a New York branding consulting firm. “After 10 years of hot, cool sexy advertising, there are less ads, less energy, smaller budgets and less impact.”
Sept. 11 escalated the malaise that began in 2001. Uncertainty caused many companies to put advertising further back on the burner. Agencies lucky enough to have business after Sept. 11 were at a loss as to how to respond creatively. Such a shattering event couldn’t be ignored, but early rushes to patriotism, such as “Keep America Rolling” car commercials, drew charges of exploitation and generally turned off consumers.
Referencing Sept. 11 in advertising is still risky. Earlier this month, ads that did were both praised and vilified. Kenneth Cole’s 12-page insert in the New York Times Feb. 3, describing the national zeitgeist the day after Sept. 11, drew vehement attacks, as well as kudos.
In a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, Budweiser’s Clydesdale horses bowed in homage to a World Trade Center-less lower Manhattan. The spot was voted best-liked in a viewer poll conducted by Intermedia Ad Group, but many described it as a tasteless brew of beer and terrorism.
Such varied responses have added to advertisers’ confusion in gauging public sentiment. If it’s crass to commercialize Sept. 11, is it also insensitive to move beyond it?
“People may criticize marketers for getting beyond grief,” said Daniel Chu, senior copywriter, TBWA/Chiat/Day, a New York agency. “We’re in a gray area now, and we don’t know when it’s OK to be normal.”
Spring campaigns, devised last fall, show advertisers grappling with post-Sept. 11 reality. Flag-waving patriotism has transformed into a celebration of old-fashioned American values: freedom, family and the good life.
And through this, advertisers said they are striving for honesty, authenticity and meaning — a challenge for the fashion world, often perceived as superficial. Advertisers want to tap into consumers’ need for scrutiny by touting comfort products that are purely indulgent. Another striking change: Gone are in-your-face, edgy ads with blatant sexuality that pushed boundaries over the past decade.
Ungaro’s dog-collared woman posing provocatively with a large canine from a few seasons ago is unthinkable today, when children shown frolicking with the family dogs is more likely to be the norm. The pale nude reclining in ecstacy in last year’s Opium ad is now overshadowed by a fresh-scrubbed woman and child snuggled in cashmere for Clinique. Even Gucci’s priapic, leather-clad men are replaced by a chaste model wearing virginal white and gazing out to sea.
Some agency executives said nervous advertisers are playing it too safe, others describe a permanent new sensitivity and still others say the prevailing mood will pass, as times improve and memories fade.
“There is a return to a lack of creativity and no willingness to take risks, like the ones we saw during the dot-com boom,” said Neil Kraft, president of Kraftworks, a New York advertising firm. “Fashion ads are more limited at evoking emotions. Designers’ first reaction used to be go for sex, then shock value, but not now.”
Sex and nudity haven’t completely disappeared, however.
Versace’s spring campaign uses a nude beach as background for a stark red bag, or a fully covered model in a red jumpsuit. The mood is dispassionate, rather than sexy. In stark hyper-real color, sunbathers look bored — a few seem to be putting suits on rather than taking them off.
Some insiders advocate a return to the “hard sell” of the Sixties and Seventies, with product front-and-center and a no-frills message of “buy this.” During hard times, companies can’t afford long-term, brand-building strategies for a wide spectrum of product.
“We’re seeing a focus on the main product, with a hit-em-between the eyes approach,” said Ellis Verdi, president of the DeVito/Verdi ad agency in New York. “Ads will become smarter, simpler, easier to understand.” Deliberately confusing ads these days, said Verdi, are often done by a “hack with an ego.”
Recycling the hard sell of past decades has to be adjusted for today’s savvy consumer, who won’t sit still for product information only.
“Everybody’s smart. They have to be engaged by an ad or they’ll walk away,” said Lynne Seid, chief client officer at BBDO New York. “You have to offer emotion or entertainment.” The Internet, Seid added, which allows for more in-depth product information, has unburdened advertisers of the need to explain product in great detail.
The “new hard sell” ideally combines product focus with intrigue, said Warren Berger, editor of One, a magazine of creativity in advertising, and author of the book “Advertising Today.” He cites “Got Milk?” television ads as drawing the viewer into an adventure, while always spotlighting product.
In recessionary times, value becomes a strong selling point, according to Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of the Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners agency, which does campaigns for Target. “Cheap chic, with great value and quality resonate with consumer values right now,” he said.
Controversy and political statements have been trademarks of brands such as Benetton, Kenneth Cole, Moschino and Diesel for years. Many see controversy as more vital than ever today. Typically, conservative presidential administrations bring out plenty of creative skepticism and humor, said Chu of TBWA/Chiat/Day, who thinks the dam will break in a healthy outburst, especially as the impact of the terrorist attacks and war recedes.
Others agree. “More than ever, I’d like to see strong statements, a real point of view,” said Verdi. “Clients say they want more, and many are switching agencies for new ideas. They’re spending the same money, but wanting more bang for the buck.”
Neil Kraft predicts that, while sensitivity reigns now, shock value will, and should, return, as long as brands are careful not to alienate core customers.
“No brands have been hurt by controversy in the past 10 years,” he said. “Any publicity is good publicity.”
Controversy, irreverence and humor have always appealed to a young audience, a group that many say is begging for a voice.
“Young people now are wondering what horse to get on,” said Verdi. “In recent years, they could aspire to the high-flying dot-com life, but now there’s a dearth of aspiration and values. There’s not much innovation in music now, post rap, and no real superstar celebrities.”
Companies such as Diesel haven’t abandoned controversy altogether. As reported, Diesel’s new campaign takes on corporate America, with a campaign that satirizes big corporations’ manipulation of consumer emotions. The campaign is set in the fictional town of Happy Valley, where consumers can buy “feelings” from Diesel. A new mascot, Donald Diesel, a somewhat malevolent-looking red-clad clown, peddles freedom, innocence, romance, etc., sponsored by Diesel. The brand targets a young audience.
“It’s a commentary on big companies taking ownership of human emotions,” said Bridget Russo, a Diesel spokeswoman. “We’re pulling from the past ads, like “Coke is it,” that tell people how to feel through a product.”
Kenneth Cole’s recent “Sept. 12” campaign garnered tremendous publicity, good and bad. “It’s what we do,” said a spokeswoman. “For us, it’s not taking a risk.” Past campaigns have taken on such socially relevant issues as materialism and AIDS, among others.
Sometimes, ads generate controversy unintentionally, as Perry Ellis’ fall campaign proved. The photos were shot by Tierney Gearon, a controversial photographer known for her portraits of nude children wearing masks or urinating.
In a Perry Ellis shot, a young man clad in underwear sits in a bathroom gazing at a much older woman, who is primping and preparing to leave.
“To some, this was just a boy waiting for his mother to leave so he can shower,” said Pablo Echevarria, senior vice president of marketing at Perry Ellis International.
“To others, it was Mrs. Robinson. You can never win; someone will always be offended.”
Most agree that controversy is better left to those who know how to do it. Now is probably not the best time for anybody to abandon a clear brand image to make a statement about war or the death penalty.
Staying true to brand identity is key. Brands that can play up their American heritage and authenticity, without coming across as cashing in, get high marks from agency executives.
Examples include Pepsi’s Super Bowl nostalgic retrospective starring Britney Spears, and Ralph Lauren’s campaigns, featuring a a montage of what he does best: unmistakably American styles.
Advertising, of course, runs in cycles. Agency heads say that after a dismal fall, business is starting to pick up, with advertisers looking for more bang for the buck and new ideas. Most predict that fall campaigns will depart from the current soft focus to include more humor, controversy, fun and sex.
“The pendulum is swinging, and we’re all trying to push the envelope gradually to see how much people can take,” said Lynne Seid of BBDO. “But, as some of the Super Bowl advertising proved, the message is that we’re ready to move on, to rock on.”

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