Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Advertisment can stimulate the economy

When the economy is down, call the adman

From The Statesman

In spite of the fact that unemployment has been rising, more than 90 percent Americans still have their jobs. But people are not spending liberally as they used to do. In this season of recession here and depression there, the adman’s song and dance is becoming extremely loud and captivating.
In the United States, advertising since long has been a most important mode of social, political and economic discourse; it is partly so because the adman knows how to cut through the glut of information and hit the target audience with promises of fulfillment of needs and desires.

The adman knows who you are: your taste in wining and dining; your preferences for the car; whether you love kids or pets or both; what’s in your medicine cabinet; what’s in your refrigerator; whether you play golf or video games. He knows what you do each part of the day and how to reach you through your demographic-psychographic profile. The adman researches people not as individual human beings but clusters of interests, preferences and tastes; as communities of shared values, seeking similar pleasures. The adman is a cultural spy as well as promoter of culture.

You need to observe how the adman cleverly propels millions of children to toy stores in order to get to the parents’ pocket books. He does it through after-school television programmes and Saturday morning cartoons, programmes that alternate with commercials so rapidly that the kids can’t make sense whether they are watching programmes or commercials. And at the same time kids feel fascinated with imaginative characters from SpongeBob SquarePants to Power Rangers.

Few parents know how to withstand the pressure from their children, ranging from outright grumpiness to passive-aggressive non-communication. Even in these difficult days when household budgeting is a challenge for many families, children come first. Children and teenagers’ consumer market is huge. Adman turns everything into “cool,” and that is the buzzword.

But imagine how the adman is dealing with a most rational group in the United States, the physicians. Direct-to-the patient “Ask Your Doctor” ads about prescription drugs, which are mostly aimed at the elderly and women, have become so common that sometimes you wonder if Americans suffer from every global disease ranging from allergies and erectile dysfunction to sagging breasts in urgent need for uplifting.

A typical “Ask Your Doctor” advertisement, for example, Detrol, which is used for incontinence and overactive bladder, may show a happy middle-aged couple walking on the beach hand in hand, so happy because they have discovered Detrol through their doctor; or middle age buddies who can sit through an entire baseball game without rushing to the bathroom.

Through these direct-to-patient ads that seem to give vital and authoritative information, the adman uses persuasion to elbow people to take the initiative and ask their physician why this drug is right for them. Of course in a rapid-fire speed-reading mode, the narrator issues warnings for the drug’s side-effects.

In a behavioural advertisement, the adman appeals directly to people’s emotions and tickles the image they have of themselves especially when he sells a value product such as an expensive luxury car to uppity rising people trying to catch up with their neighbours. But by mixing both kinds of appeals, emotional and informative, many pharmaceutical companies make a direct pitch to patients from “If Viagra isn’t everything you hoped for, don’t give up” because there is Cialis for 36 hours and even for daily use to “Now I trust my heart to Lipitor”; and so on.

Many drug manufacturers are using television celebrities to push their prescription drugs, a strategy that might make a physician wonder if it’s worthwhile to resist the pressure and lose his or her patients to another healthcare provider.

The adman’s approach to these two large and almost captive markets, children and the elderly, is quite similar. To get to parents, the adman, like a magician, snares children by creating what is “cool”; to get to physicians, he goes to their patients by using a direct and immediate health benefit appeal. Both appeals use subtle emotional pressures, pushing on ethical boundaries.

But in spite of all his faults, the adman is indispensable to a free market society. The adman impacts society in multifarious ways by bringing buyers and sellers together in the marketplace of goods, services and ideas, and thereby helps distribute economic and intellectual resources of the society.

The social discourse today is all about stimulating the economy through buying and selling because in a consumer society like the United States if the trips to shopping malls diminish, so would the economy. Sooner or later, therefore, the adman would get us because he can take us everywhere we want to be. And he keeps the economy moving even in these times of recession when our lives have become rather fearful of tomorrows. The American adman may be President Obama’s best ally in fighting the economic downturn.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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