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VIEWPOINTS : Advertising Has a Lot to Learn From New, Improved-and Smarter-Public : But Can the Industry Adapt to a More Sophisticated Consumer?

February 21, 1988|TOM PIRKO | TOM PIRKO is the president of Bevmark Inc., a management consulting firm in Los Angeles

Remember how Bela Lugosi as Dracula leveled his crypt-cold stare on hapless victims, when he commanded, "Look into my eyes"? All force of will, all resistance, vanished. No neck was safe.

America's corporations have become accustomed to thinking that they have a similar, abiding power. If they stare deeply enough into a consumer's eyes, he will surrender. The bite--the sale--can be assumed.

Business does have some justification for feeling this way; the lure of advertising is well established. Major consumer brands have routinely been created and fueled by advertising campaigns. Companies like AT&T, Procter & Gamble and General Foods are living testaments to the power of ads. Even the U.S. government relies on TV ads to recruit its armed forces.

With the Olympics now upon us, the value of commercial sponsorship is particularly evident. Companies like Visa and IBM were each willing to put up a cool $10 million just for the privilege of being designated "official" Olympic sponsor.

Yet, despite appearances, all is not well. Behind the facade of advertising's omnipotence lies growing disenchantment.

According to industry analysts, last year major supermarkets in the United States rejected an estimated 92% of all new products offered to them. More than one-third of those products were the ad-nurtured offspring of leading manufacturers. Not only do ads no longer necessarily guarantee enduring commercial success, they no longer even guarantee that a product will be awarded a space on the shelf.

Anheuser-Busch, a company that dominates the beer industry with a share of more than 40%, twice took a shot at the wine cooler business. It spent a whopping $45 million on advertising its Babry's and Dewey Stevens brands. Don't bother searching for either item. They've been discontinued.

General Motors, a company with a tremendous base of sales and huge financial resources, is also a company plagued by a reputation for delaying innovation and poor product quality. Recently, GM has not been able to use its once-mighty weapon, advertising, to persuade Americans. Advertising has not shielded the company from the likes of Honda, Toyota or Nissan.

To the dismay of ad executives, many prominent companies have begun to shift the balance of their promotional money away from advertising and toward "point of purchase" inducements, i.e., stronger merchandising and deeper price discounts. During the past four years, bellwether Apple Computer has reduced its per-annum ad spending to less than $50 million from more than $100 million. Apple is putting more of its money where it can see immediate results. It is spending it directly with wholesalers, retailers and consumers.

Can it be that advertising, one of the gods of American business, is really a false idol? Why does it no longer command the reverence that it once did?

Our firm analyzes consumers' responses to advertisements. We survey 2,000 American families, asking them a minimum of 200 questions, every month. During the past two years, we have noticed and tracked dramatic changes in the ways Americans perceive and accept or reject ads.

Four of five people in our studies confess to mistrusting advertising. Two of every 25 have gone over to the "extreme" group that admits to adapting a defiant, guerrilla-like attitude when confronted by certain types of ads. They declare, in effect: "Show me an ad that I find stupor-inducing or offensive and I'll intentionally avoid purchasing your product. And I'll tell all my friends not to buy it as well." Even more significant, nearly four out of 10 describe how they frequently shield themselves from ads, how they consciously divert their attention when subjected to the advertiser's pitch.

Why?

Our research points to highly complex and often conflicting rationales for these behaviors. Many are the product of individuals' personal psychology. However, there are hints that at least three factors, three sentiments, play a major role in the general public's increasingly averse reactions to advertising.

For some consumers, advertising has become so highly pervasive, it simply overwhelms. In interviews, people speak of existing in an environment that is supersaturated with demands upon their attention. The data that we have gathered lends credence to the theory that many Americans suffer from a type of stress that clearly is communications-related. There is a strong suggestion that people reject or evade ads to relieve this stress.

As markets have become more competitive, companies have fought more ferociously to influence the public. Ever more desperate to stand out, companies have resorted to advertising that intentionally provokes or shocks. Almost any tactic now is permissible when an advertiser is trying to capture the consumer.

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