If you watch any nonzero amount of television you may have noticed an interesting trend in advertising since the beginning of the year. Your friends in corporate America have helpfully adjusted their tactics in response to the way the Invisible Hand adjusted your standard of living. If there remains anyone who doubts that the country has fallen on bleak economic times, watching an hour or two of TV will make that fact perfectly clear. Retailers have adapted to the current climate using one of two broad strategies.
First, there is the prominent "We're you're pals! We'll help you save money!" technique. They know you're broke but luckily for you they have products for broke people too. Hormel has doubled its ad budget for Spam and, for the first time ever, rolled out a national ad campaign for its dirt cheap, mucilege-like Dinty Moore beef stew. The soothing voice of Dennis Haysbert tells us tales of the Great Depression and reminds us of the simple things that make us happy – home cooked meals, etc. – while reminding us of the quality and value of Allstate. DirecTV pitches pay-per-view to its customers by helpfully noting "Did you know that when five people go to the movies you pay for the same movie five times? Why not pay once and stay in!"
Unilever has rolled out a national campaign for Suave, the shampoo equivalent of Top Ramen. The home remodeling industry, which for years has beaten consumers over the head with pitches about $20,000 kitchen remodelings, room additions, and luxury items, is now advertising hammers and wire to people who need to fix things themselves (Home Depot's new campaign: "More Saving, More Doing" over images of people fixing cracked windows). McDonald's loudly points out that its new Starbucks knockoff coffees cost half as much as the real thing. Microsoft's new ads say little about the commercial failure of Vista and a lot about the fact that comparable Apple products cost thrice as much as Windows-based PCs. Everywhere we look we're suddenly being sold the simple life. Take note during the next commercial break of how many ads are selling value, durability, and frugality.
The second strategy is the blatant but undignified "Please, please, please start spending again" ads for products which can't pitch a cheap alternative. Gillette Fusion ads now remind men that "when the Indicator Strip turns blue, change your blade for a better shave!" as Americans decide to wring twice as many shaves out of the obscenely expensive replacement blades. Nestle PureLife is pitching huge prizes and impressing the virtues of bottled water to a nation that suddenly remembered that it can drink from the tap for free. Starbucks, purveyors of the archetypical "I don't fuckin' need this" purchase for many Americans, is rolling out Value Meal-type offerings. Las Vegas, which exists solely for the purpose of getting fat midwesterners (and weekending mortgage brokers and talent execs from LA) to pour money into slot machines or blow it on shitty, overpriced shows, is dying the slow death of the overextended debtor.
And the auto industry? Good God, the auto industry. Dodge dealers have been heard to offer buy one get one free Rams and Avengers (think about that for a second). GM has once again resorted to 0% financing and piles of cash-back on the hood in an effort to move cars. Hyundai tells customers that they can return their car if they get fired or laid off – and unbelievably Saturn one-ups them by promising that you can stop making payments and keep the car. Desperation is thus re-defined. Even Toyota, the 900 pound gorilla of the auto industry, is telling customers "you'll never have as much buying power as you do right now!" In other words, thousands of cars sitting on lots and nobody looking to buy. And every ad, regardless of manufacturer, repetitively pushes fuel economy, resale value, financing, and discounts, discounts, discounts.
After decades of using advertising to whip up demand for expensive shit that no one really needs, corporate America has set its sights much lower these days. They know you're not going to remodel the kitchen or buy a Lexus; they'll settle for getting you to buy anything. Time will tell if even this lowered bar is too high given the current state of affairs.