Exploitive Marketing in a Tough Economy

New Yorker Cover - January 5, 2009

The January 5th, 2009 cover of the New Yorker magazine humorously illustrates the dilemma of practicing positive and enlightened marketing during times of economic crisis, when the obvious temptation is to pander to the fears of clients and their customers. We’ve seen the “Recession Sale!” and the “Bailout Prices” and other exploitive triggers used by second-rate marketers and amateurs to try to gain consumer attention, and will indeed see much more of this negative message advertising in the near future. Experience, research and insight says this tactic does not work, and worse, it casts the client’s products, services and entire brand image in a negative light, and loses mind share to the blizzard of all-too-real crisis headlines found throughout the media today.

Soon, these crisis messages will switch to the promise of “Hope” and “Change” as promised by future leaders, but the crisis mentality of the consumer will continue for some years, and many worried advertising executives watching their marketing accounts cut in half by unenlightened business leaders and boards of directors will continue to try and gain market share by shouting, focusing on price points, discounts and last minute panic ads with a background colored in the black and white of a pending Depression. Once again, this won’t work.

During the Great Depression, while many advertisers focused on fantasy to feed the need to escape hardships, the New Deal gave others the idea to brand virtually every product as “New!” or “Improved!” – a practice that continues to this day. What did the most successful companies do to survive the last Depression, and what will today’s agencies do to ensure the success of their clients in the future?

The answers to both of these questions are truisms of our profession: positive, truthful communications that respect the needs and desires of customers. Great agencies have great clients, because belief in a client’s product produces the best ads, and clients who believe in the experience and professionalism of their agency understand that successful marketing is much more than exploiting buzzwords, or making just another screaming automobile commercial, just like their competitors.

The bottom line: the companies who not only survived the last depression, but emerged as timeless brands, invested the largest percentage of their budgets in advertising. Today, many shortsighted executives cut marketing budgets first to placate worried investors, or worse, to pay for their own inflated salaries. After all, the crisis mentality worries about today, not tomorrow, and certainly not about next year or the next decade.

Agencies that succeed in today’s shrinking advertising marketplace will shun easy exploitation, understand and believe in their client’s products, and creatively convince consumers to “buy for benefits,” a process that requires the difficult orchestration of numerous effective marketing tactics, both traditional and non-traditional, and therefore requires prudent investment. History has shown that when companies cut the marketing budget, they are cutting their own throats, even though it will take a while for them to realize they are disappearing.

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