RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
If you've turned on the TV lately, you've probably noticed ads like this one.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Mr. DENNIS HAYSBERT (Actor): 1931 was not exactly a great year to start a business, but that's when Allstate opened its doors. And through the 12 recessions since, it noticed that after the fears subside, a funny thing happens. People start enjoying the small things in life.
MONTAGNE: With the economy going south and consumers hunkering down, companies now must peddle products to people who don't want to part with their money. To find out how companies market during recessions, we reached Tim Calkins. He's a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Welcome to the program.
Professor TIM CALKINS (Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University): Great to be here.
MONTAGNE: Now, we just heard a bit of an Allstate ad. Is this among the sort of classic pitches that a company would make during a recession?
Professor CALKINS: Well, it is absolutely something that makes a lot of sense for companies to do. And they're trying to say, of course, that, you know, even though times might be tough, the good things in life are still there, and we'll all get through this together. And you know, at Allstate we've been here for a long time, and we will be here for a long time to come, unlike some other companies, so perhaps...
MONTAGNE: Here's an ad from a company that actually went a step further.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Voiceover: Buy any new Hyundai, and if in the next year you lose your income, we'll let you return it. That's the Hyundai assurance. We're all in this together, and we'll all get through it together.
Professor CALKINS: The Hyundai program is very unique. This is the first time a program like this has been rolled out in the auto industry. But I think it reflects what's going on in the auto industry right now, which is that people are so hesitant to buy cars. So what Hyundai is doing is trying to reach out and connect with people and say, well, even if everything goes south, we'll still let you out of this financial obligation. I bet you'll see more offers like this coming from the automakers over the next few weeks.
MONTAGNE: Are we seeing a lot of companies trying to bond with consumers in their pain?
Professor CALKINS: You know, advertising has to connect with folks. The hard part, though, is how do you do that, because you don't want to talk about price and being cheap, because that's a very dangerous road for any company that tries to be different and unique. So the hard part is you've got to talk about value or you've got to really talk about what makes you unique.
So on the value front, for example, the diamond industry, leading into the holidays, De Beers was running a very creative campaign around diamonds where they spent a lot of money. And basically the gist of the campaign was all about fewer, better things. And they said that even though things are tough and you're feeling stretched, this is the time to get rid of all the disposable stuff and really to spend on stuff that will last and will endure, and of course go out and buy diamonds.
MONTAGNE: The biggest advertising moment of the year is almost upon us, and that of course is the Super Bowl. How do you think the recession will affect the kinds of ads that we'll see at this year's Super Bowl?
Professor CALKINS: Well, there's nothing like the Super Bowl when it comes to advertising. It really is an amazing event. It's still the case this year. But I think there's two ways the recession's going to affect the Super Bowl this year. One is in terms of simply demand for the spots. Companies are struggling a little bit more to say is this a year to step up and get on the game and invest the - what they're saying is $3 million a commercial. You know, so FedEx, one very notable advertiser, this year decided not to advertise, first time in about a decade. General Motors, not advertising in the Super Bowl, first time for about a decade.
The second thing, though, is I think the message you might see this year may be slightly different than we've seen in past years. I suspect you'll see a lot more subdued ads and maybe ads that are a little more reflective of the economy that we're in.
MONTAGNE: Tim Calkins is a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. Thank you for joining us.
Professor CALKINS: Thank you.