Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Learning to Live with Frugality

We’re far enough along in the economic downturn for there to be a glut of ad campaigns aimed at the thrifty consumer. From Wal-Mart and Target to Virgin Mobile and Kraft, creative copy is being funneled into the contradictory practice of getting conserving consumers to, well, consume. Most approach it as a "trust me, we’ve got bargains" line of reasoning. Some, like the recent "don’t feed the pig" campaign for tourism in Finland, have a screw-the-recession ethos that may be appealing but ultimately no more or less effective (because, after all, if you haven’t got it to spend, you haven’t got it). Although very few companies follow it, the basic principle during downturns is that steady or increased advertising (no matter what kind) almost always works.

Since as early as last fall, market analysts and consumer behavior specialists have been tearing up the population segments, scrutinizing up and down to make prognostications (is "the new frugality" temporary? Widespread? A long term trend?) designed to keep companies afloat and ahead of the game. As Tessa Wegert of ClickZ put it,

According to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by online coupon site RetailMeNot, consumers are likely to cut their budgets during an economic recession but will continue to spend if provided with discounts. They're also just as likely to look to the Web for deals as they are to stores. In response, consumer marketers are focusing their most recent ad campaigns not just on the bargains they're able to offer but also on the economic value they can deliver at a time when the country's acutely aware of what it's spending and where. Ads that take a decidedly cash-conscious spin are cropping up on television, in print, and of course, online. While a drop in sales is certainly cause for worry for many consumer good producers, a quick glance at the history of our culture says we’re a long way away from the death of consumerism.
Journalist Lauren Weber takes a more nuanced approach in her forthcoming book, In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood Virtue. Looking back through American history, Weber finds a deep ambivalence about spending and saving running through our culture, from Ben Franklin to John Maynard Keynes, Booker T. Washington to freegans and eco-conscious conservationists. While advertising, object obsolescence, and status issues certainly contribute to American’s lack of frugality, Weber reminds us that there are plenty of other factors at work here (deregulated markets, stagnating wages, inequality, and financial illiteracy among them). The key point here is that thrifty impulses wax and wane and co-exist with more expansive attitudes about consumption.

Many current marketing pitches have a bit of a frantic edge, hinting that the world might crumble if consumers don’t buy the new improved frugal (or anti-frugal) message. There's always some consumer disbelief when marketers are pushing virtuous spending. One of the reasons green campaigns have remained successful is the impression that there’s positive embedded in the potentially negative –the pleasure of getting something that also gives back mitigates the pain of paying. In the end, we’re still all consumers – the question for us and for marketers remains, what kind of consumers do we want to be?

pig image: Finnish ad campaign featured on NPR's Planet Money

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