Advertisers learning how to get real

Campaigns reflect new societal norms

By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun
Tribune Newspapers

December 17, 2003

A recent advertisement for American Express featured a beaming Caucasian couple sitting on a sofa holding their newly adopted Chinese baby.

The Ikea furniture store in College Park, Md., has mock room layouts specifically designed for unmarried couples moving in together, or for children from two families combining to become one after a second marriage.

And in a television spot for Friendly's restaurants, a bachelor asks a single mom and her daughter out on a first date for ice cream.

Advertising long relied on Rockwellian images of America because mainstream advertisers tend to be conservative, fearful of offending someone and thwarting millions in ad spending. But marketers -- and their corporate clients -- appear increasingly willing to portray, and pitch products to, a more diverse nation.

Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, advertising professionals say they sense a shift. Some say the nation's biggest companies are coming to a realization that consumers prefer seeing life situations they can relate to in ads.

Others peg the change to 9/11 and a nation looking more seriously at itself. With TV sitcoms and "reality shows" portraying all manner of relationships, advertisers, some say, are just catching up with the rest of society.

"Marketing people have to relate to the environment as it is, not how you hope it would be," said Eugene Fram, a marketing professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

"Advertising largely mirrors accepted behaviors and standards in society," said Scott Rasmussen, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Carton, Donofrio and Partners Inc., a Baltimore ad agency. "As it has loosened up in society at large, marketers feel comfortable enough to expose some of that in their marketing message. They need to be ensured it's a notion in society at large before they take that risk."

America, in real life, long ago moved past "Leave-it-to-Beaver" imagery that defined much consumer advertising. But the people who pay for, and create, advertising as late as a decade ago feared that portrayals seen as non-traditional would anger interest groups or repel some customers. But that view is changing -- as the country changes. U.S. Census and other data show more unmarrieds living together, fewer couples having children, more racially mixed couples, more remarriages.

"I think there is definitely a theme in advertising to return to real people," said Samantha Ettus, a branding expert and president of Ettus Media Management in New York. "None of these images are revolutionary in real-life America. America has looked diverse for a number of years."

Years ago, a black model might be placed in the background of an advertisement but was rarely its focus, some executives said. Blacks now "have more of an egalitarian role rather than a face in the crowd or the backseat to a more prominent group," said Jonah Bloom, executive editor for the trade publication Ad Week. "It's more honest."

A different look

This year, Ikea Corp., the Swedish furniture company, began displaying in its showrooms custom-designed home layouts expressly made for different "types" of families.

"When two families become one, it can be a delicate balance," said a sign at the chain's new College Park store, describing a layout for a "blended" family. "Furnishing your new home together is the chance to let each of you express personal needs and desires."

A photo shows a black man and Hispanic women playing Chinese checkers with their two mixed-race children. The layout includes bunk beds and containers that fit under the coffee table to store all the toys that accumulate from two families.

The model for another room, designed for a couple moving in together, shows a picture of a black woman watching her white boyfriend play a guitar. "When you first move in together, you're not just in love, you're on the threshold of a new life, and a new way of living," the inscription reads.

"The overall idea is to reflect the customers we have," said Clive Cashman, an Ikea spokesman.

The shift is not just European sensibility at play: Friendly Ice Cream Corp. had a similar motivation in mind when the Massachusetts-based restaurant chain developed its "You and Me and Friendly's" television campaign in 2001.

An ad depicting a man asking out his date and her young daughter was one of 21 commercials Friendly's developed to connect more intimately with consumers. Others portrayed a mom returning to work outside the home, and an older brother taking his sister out for ice cream to soothe a first heartbreak.

"We're trying to focus on real-life situations," said Peter Bell, Friendly senior director of marketing. "We're not looking to create a hokey commercial where young Johnny learns to ride a bike. Every commercial we've done is based on real stories that have happened to actual people."

Subtle messages

As if to underscore the change in attitude in marketing circles, some of the new image ads don't even call attention to the new images. An AT&T Wireless commercial shows a married couple bickering before making up via text messages on their phones: The fact that the man is Caucasian and the woman is Asian requires no elaboration.

No one is suggesting that advertisers have shed all apprehension. Many companies still tiptoe around using gay subjects, for instance, industry experts said.

"They're afraid of backlash from the predominantly straight population," said Michael Mazis, a professor of marketing at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington.

This year, however, no less a bastion of conservative corporate America than American Express launched a campaign to reflect new societal norms. In a series of ads dubbed "personal economy," the financial services company portrayed a variety of life- and income-altering events. One ad showed a Caucasian couple adopting an Asian child. Another showed two senior citizens marrying.

"A lot of time in advertising you see glossy images that don't reflect reality," said Giunero Floro, vice president of advertising and brand management for American Express Financial Advisers Inc.

"We tried to pick those individuals that people could relate to."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune