LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
All of this gloomy talk is also having an effect on advertising. You may be thinking that the effects are obvious. Struggling businesses often trim costs by cutting at budgets and fewer retailers mean fewer ads. That's all true. But there's another effect. Many businesses are using the economic crunch as a marketing tool. The question is, will people spend money if you keep reminding them how tight things are? Seth Stevenson is the ad critic for the online magazine Slate. He is with us in the studio to talk about what we're watching. Welcome to the program.
Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Ad Critic, slate.com): Glad to be here.
WERTHEIMER: Now, we're talking about TV commercials so our listeners will have to use their imaginations. This is an ad that starts with a conversation in an office cubicle. I It's a McDonald's ad for its dollar menu.
(Soundbite of McDonald's commercial)
Unidentified Man #1: Dollar is down again.
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, it's true.
Unidentified Woman #1: No, it's feeble.
Unidentified Man #1: It's dropping like a lead balloon.
Unidentified Man #2: Tanking.
Unidentified Woman: It's just in free fall.
Unidentified Man #1: It's pathetic.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey, Big-O(ph). What do you got there, fellow?
Unidentified Man #3: Double cheeseburger from the dollar menu.
Unidentified Man #1: Did I say weak? The dollar is looking strong.
Unidentified Man #2: The dollar is looking good.
Unidentified Woman #1: Very good.
WERTHEIMER: Using the sad state of dollar to sell burgers and fries, this ad sort of starts off very depressing.
Mr. STEVENSON: Yeah, I think for a business like McDonald's, they could choose to emphasize the taste of their food or convenience, but in times like these they might choose to more emphasize low prices.
WERTHEIMER: So the price point is the selling thing. And it's also interesting that it's business people in a cubicle and not some lunch bucket guy.
Mr. STEVENSON: Right. Well, perhaps everyone is feeling the pinch and people who might normally go out to lunch at a sit-down restaurant will now be going to a quick-service restaurant.
WERTHEIMER: There's also this example, which, I guess, maybe is a little more subtle. It's an ad for a credit card, and it suggests that consumers can keep spending a little. In this commercial a guy is shopping for a big-screen TV.
(Soundbite of a credit card commercial)
Unidentified Woman #2: You're right, we need a new TV. Just don't go overboard.
(Soundbite of the song "I Want It All")
QUEEN (Singing): I want it all. I want it all. I want it all. And I want it now.
Unidentified Man #4: Text Chase for your credit balance...
WERTHEIMER: So, the point of the ad is that the guy looks at his credit card balance and decides what he could spend for a big-screen TV. Do you think that the ad companies here are more realistic or just more crafty?
Mr. STEVENSON: A lot of readers in my column on Slate wrote in to me about this ad because the original version of the ad just had the guy sort of, you know, running in this consumer frenzy, and then they changed the ad and added this voiceover where he says, just don't go overboard. And I think the idea is the ad felt a little bit out of step with the mood of the country and they realized that. The idea of being, in this consumer-frenzy and running out with your credit card, maybe wasn't touching on how we were feeling at the moment. And so they added that voiceover and of course, the song still says, I want it all, I want it now, but they just sort of hedged their bets a little bit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
WERTHEIMER: Obviously, car commercials have had to turn on a dime and there are a lot of ads around like this one.
(Soundbite of car commercial)
Unidentified Man #5: Let's refuel America.
Unidentified Man #6: Announcing the Chrysler Jeep $2.99 gas guarantee.
Unidentified Man #5: Right now when you buy or lease most Chrysler or Jeep vehicles, you'll pay just $2.99 a gallon per gas or diesel...
WERTHEIMER: It feels like these ads showed up right away when gas prices started to zoom. I mean, can they really make decisions about ad campaigns and produce them and just do it suddenly like this?
Mr. STEVENSON: Oh, sure. They can do a pretty quick turnaround. With car brands, some brands like, say, a Mercedes, are never going to advertise on price. Their brand isn't about getting a bargain. Other brands, no matter what the economic situation is, they're always going to advertise on price. But for brands in the middle, they'll shift their emphasis back and forth. But in times like these they might fall back on emphasizing the mileage because people are really concerned about those four-dollar gas prices.
WERTHEIMER: Ad critic Seth Stevenson from Slate. Thanks very much
Mr. STEVENSON: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News.
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