Ad industry shows its true nature as a political animal

Though advertising has come a long way since Aldous Huxley aired his fears over it in 1958, the industry and politics are still intertwined

Aldous%20HuxleyAt lunch a few months ago, someone who works at a sister company to cable network AMC, asked what I thought of Mad Men, the hit advertising drama show that has turned what was once a movie rerun network into one of the hottest media properties in town.

My admission that I hadn’t seen it brought a gasp of horror, and a couple of hours later, back at my desk, a courier dropped off DVDs of Season 1. I took my time getting round to watching it because I was clearly a bit late on this one anyway, but it was worth the wait.

What Mad Men does is give you some insight into a history of the US that rarely gets told. It’s the story of how a bunch of creative men on New York’s Madison Avenue – (those “Mad” men) and great Chicago ad shops helped shape the thinking and self-perception of a fast-growing, increasingly wealthy and confident American populace.

The huge success of Mad Men, which has picked up numerous Emmy awards and plenty of other accolades, has in typical US television fashion prompted an imitator. This week the first episode of Trust Me, a drama show on TNT starring Eric McCormack (Will and Grace) will air. It is about two friends who run a Chicago advertising agency circa 2009.

Your average advertising agency is so packed with colourful characters that you wonder why it took the TV world so long to make major shows about this industry. However making good TV about US advertising comes just at the time when nearly every business anticipates that they will have to cut back their budget. It is an understatement to say 2009 is not expected to be a great year for the US ad industry. The US advertising industry lost three of its biggest spenders in the last quarter of 2008: autos, real estate and banks, while some major retail names went under. And it doesn’t look like things are going to make a quick recovery this year.

Mad Men is set in the late Fifties moving in to the early Sixties, which was around the time Aldous Huxley, the novelist and essayist, made some of his sharpest criticisms of the ad industry. Huxley was concerned with advertising’s role in promoting consumerism, but perhaps more so about its role as a possible tool of government propaganda.

Advertising has come a long way since Huxley and the imagined world of Draper’s Madison Avenue but the ironic thing about some of Huxley’s criticism is that there are some fundamentals the advertising industry will likely revert to.

Playing on anxieties

“Find some common desire, some widespread unconscious fear or anxiety; think out some way to relate this wish or fear to the product you have to sell,” he wrote.* With US jobless numbers released this month expected to be up to their highest since 1982, and US banks still reeling from the possibility of financial collapse, there are an increasing number of ads that play on Americans’ anxiety about losing their jobs. There are now bank ads telling you not what fancy financial products they have to sell, but rather that the bank is a safe and solvent bank. There are other more positive brand ads from banks, but even those are banks trying to remind you who now owns your old bank. “Washington Mutual is now part of the JP Morgan Chase family” or “One team twice as strong – Wells Fargo and Wachovia”. Other mega mergers have included Bank of America taking over storied investment bank Merrill Lynch.

Huxley’s fear of advertisers getting too involved with politics came fleetingly close over the weekend in the run-up to the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama. TV companies and marketers alike see this as the first big TV event of the year competing with no less an advertising platform than the annual Super Bowl final. Many advertisers planned promotions and sponsorships around the long weekend, which included the Martin Luther King public holiday the day before the inauguration. Advertisers will be betting for huge numbers watching the inauguration itself despite the fact it takes place during office working hours in the US.

Yet the Super Bowl will still reign supreme this year as the premier advertising event. Even with a dreadful economy and severely hampered ad market, Super Bowl XLIII will still manage to beat previous records and probably rake in about $200m (£135m).

NBC, which is airing the event on February 1, said this week that it already has 90% of all its Super Bowl inventory, with peak slots selling at a record $3m (£2m) for 30 seconds.

Still on a run
In other words, the Super Bowl is the only platform in advertising where inflation still flourishes at an impressive 11% up from last year’s event, which was carried by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox. That network charged $2.7m for peak 30-second slots.

This year’s event will be missing huge spots from some of the old favourites, particularly US car makers such as General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.

Most car makers usually use the Super Bowl to launch new models, but given that they are all still trying to figure out how to survive despite receiving bailout money from the US government, unveiling new models may not be a priority.

It’s tough, even for those car makers in better shape. The Associated Press reported that the South Korean car maker Hyundai had taken two major slots to launch a new model but then decided to use one to feature a new incentive programme that “forgives” auto loans for car buyers who lose their income within a year of the purchase.

Another foreign car maker that will be advertising is Audi America, which will be taking a 60-second slot.

But the biggest spender on media time will be long-time Super Bowl advertiser Budweiser. It will be taking about four and a half minutes this year, with a range of spots expected to be uplifting in these difficult times.

This year’s Super Bowl story so far seems to be Godaddy.com, the somewhat controversial internet address registration site, which has raised its profile with slightly edgy sexy ads in the past.

NBC approved its two ads this week, which feature a well-known female racing celebrity in the shower. Ever since Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Nipplegate affair on CBS in 2004, broadcast networks have been extra sensitive of upsetting US media regulators at the Federal Communications Commission. Though you sense that during these particularly difficult financial times for broadcasters and advertisers alike, both parties might probably decide the best thing to do is to look away now. 

* Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

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