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The Fact Is Back as Crash Brings Truth to Advertising

December 08, 1987|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Porsche has spent millions of dollars positioning its product as a car that's sexier than sin.

But a few days after the stock market crash, ad man Tom McElligott began to wonder if Porsche ads needed a tad less spark and a smidgen more fact. After all, some potential Porsche buyers suddenly needed practical reasons for buying the costly car.

So McElligott, whose highly regarded Minneapolis ad firm, Fallon McElligott, just inherited the $20-million Porsche advertising business, decided to give practical-minded buyers one very good reason to consider Porsche. In sober, black-and-white advertising, the headline above the new Porsche print ads he created boasts: "At 107% resale value, it makes the Dow look positively reckless."

It's back to the future in advertising. Following a year when advertisers tried to outdo each other with splash and panache, 1988 will be a year that facts take the front seat and hyperbole gets stowed away somewhere in the trunk.

That's not to say that glitz is gone. Pepsi has some flashy Michael Jackson ads ready for spring, and Coca-Cola has effusive ads this week toasting the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. But basically, an uncertain economy seems to have turned many advertisers conservative.

Most advertisers apparently believe that too much is at stake in 1988 to monkey around with obscure ads or purely image-building extravaganzas. And they plan to heavily use the 1988 Olympics and the presidential elections to sell their products.

This straightforward approach is, in part, a reaction to the more obscure, glitzy ads of the past few years. So, in 1988 advertising is expected to be a reincarnation of a marketing method devised nearly 30 years ago by advertising legend David Ogilvy. At the time, the headline for his first print ad for Rolls-Royce said: "At 60 miles per hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock." Now, the hands of advertising time have been turned back: No-nonsense ads will again be advertising chic in 1988.

"The ads don't have to be dull," said McElligott, "but they have to tell people something about the product." In that thinking, McElligott is not alone. "It will be harder to sell the emperor new clothes," said Jack Roth, chairman of the Los Angeles ad firm Admarketing Inc. "Clients will demand advertising that they know will work."

If one industrywide advertising trend stands high above the rest for 1988, it is the decline of obscure advertising and an expected return to ads that pull no punches. Interviews with a dozen of the nation's top advertising executives and directors reveal that if 1987 was the year of larger-than-life advertising, 1988 will be the year of back-to-basics ads.

Indeed, 1988 will be a year the content of many ads will be determined, in part, by the events around them. After all, beyond the advertising aftershocks of the stock market crash, 1988 is also an election year and an Olympics year. Ad executives say their clients are eager to use all these events to get their products sold. "There will be an enormous pressure on advertisers to deliver," said Graham Phillips, chairman of the New York ad firm Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Inc. "We're all scrambling around trying to do just that."

There will also be pressure on advertisers to pay more. "I'll tell you one thing," said Robert J. Coen, senior vice president at the New York ad firm McCann-Erickson Worldwide, "there won't be many bargains around for advertisers in 1988."

Just ask ABC, which is scheduled to televise the Super Bowl on Jan. 31. The highest price paid for a 30-second spot during professional football's biggest game has jumped 12.5% to $675,000, compared to $600,000 during the CBS telecast last January, said William A. Harmond, vice president of sales of ABC's western division. And of the 51 commercial slots, he said, "there's next to nothing left."

As companies vie for the best spots during the Olympics--and as political candidates jockey for the best commercial slots--ad spending in the United States could increase 9% in 1988, compared to 1987, Coen projected.

Advertisers will face the biggest price increases they've seen in four years. The cost of network TV ads could jump 10% to 12%, Coen said. As a result, ad spending will reach nearly $120 billion next year, compared to $110 billion in 1987, Coen said.

But as advertisers spend more, they will also face increasing pressure to get their messages across. And the best way to do that may be to simply present the facts. Nowhere is this emerging fact-oriented approach more visible than in auto ads.

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