Media: Suddenly it's sexy to be sensible: Martin Rosenbaum examines the changed advertising philosophy of the nervy Nineties

ARE YOU rational but insecure? More worried about whether your car is safe than sexy? If so, it is nothing to fret about: you are merely conforming to the current stereotype. But be careful all the same, for advertisers have sussed you out and are targeting their seductive messages precisely towards you.

If the recession really is over - and few now doubt it - advertisers face the challenge of directing pent- up demand towards their products. The theory is that to maximise consumer spending, ads will have to emphasise the twin themes of reason and reassurance. 'Don't sell sizzle, sell security,' says Jim Murphy, associate director of the Henley Centre for Forecasting. Why? For those who like their decades summed up in one adjective, preferably alliterative, we are living in the nervy Nineties. The cautious consumer is in charge.

The argument is based partly on the legacy of a downturn, the victims of which have included the better-off. The slump has led to wariness about debt, middle-class unemployment, a loss of confidence in house prices, and reduced expectations of income growth. More fundamental developments include fragmenting family structures, less job security, more frequent career changes and a diminishing faith in the welfare state.

'When you stack up these factors,' argues Mr Murphy, 'it is foolish to think consumer behaviour will revert to the style of the Eighties. A change of atmosphere is bearing down on much marketing activity. People are becoming more hesitant and cautious about their future.

'Increasingly, the function of marketing will be to make us feel more comfortable about making choices, taking risks and indulging ourselves. Consumers will have a greater need for rational explanations of why they buy things.'

This view is backed up by extensive research produced earlier this year by one of the country's major agencies, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. According to Drusilla Gabbott, the board account planner at AMV who organised the study: 'There is a profound consumer attitude shift. This will liberate agencies from the pressure to try to sell products on the basis of warm, slushy feelings. We've always been the sort of agency that sells on rational benefits, and Nineties attitudes have moved our way.

'You can't say functional benefits are everything in advertising, as each product category is different, but some generalisations can be made. People are frightened and they want to spend their money wisely.'

While some product areas - such as perfumes - will doubtless remain immune, in others change is already apparent. Since the Eighties, car advertising has seen a dramatic shift away from images of excitement and glamour towards the making of specific claims, especially about safety, reliability and durability. The archetypal car commercial now features air bags instead of burning fields.

For Ms Gabbott the year's most talked about ads, the supermodel ones for the Vauxhall Corsa, are a good example of her thesis. They are simply an elaborate way to draw attention to specific product benefits, such as capacity, safety features and anti-theft devices.

Ironically, the obvious counter- example might seem to be Volvo, a long-standing AMV client with a unique reputation for safety, established through years of distinctive advertising. At a time last year when BMW and Audi had started to compete for its safety territory, the Swedish company caused widespread astonishment when it undertook an apparent reversal in strategy. The TV commercial for the 850 saloon, which showed the car metamorphosing into a galloping horse against the backdrop of the Australian outback, was an uncharacteristic appeal to driver excitement.

This now seems to have been a blip. The ad launched last month for the 850 estate reassuringly extols the virtues of its side-impact protection system and confirms that Volvo recognises that now is not the time to risk surrendering its safety image.

There are other areas where the required shift has a long way to go. According to Ms Gabbott, the biggest opportunity is in marketing financial services. Companies should spend less time on their corporate images, especially when their desired image cannot be reconciled with public perceptions, and more on giving specific details of their services.

A similar view is taken by Mike Fredman, chairman of Bates Direct Communications, a BSB Dorland subsidiary. He says: 'Research shows 62 per cent of people do not know what interest they are being paid on their savings. Too much money in financial advertising is spent on telling people 'We're big, friendly and wonderful'. It's not on any more. People want a specific proposition, so they can understand what's in it for them.'

Others take a different view of what makes advertising effective. John Hegarty, creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and the man behind the Levi's campaign and other trend-setting Eighties advertising, says: 'I'm sceptical of claims that 'the Eighties were like this, the Nineties are like that'. Trying to go with the flow is poor marketing. Great advertising lives beyond fashion. Our work for Haagen-Dazs ice-cream has made its own rules. It looked like an Eighties product, but has been hugely successful in the Nineties.'

He rejects the idea that consumer behaviour is becoming more careful and rational: 'Human beings are nine-tenths emotional. The heart rules the head, it always has and always will. Ultimately, emotion is what sells.'

The debate is not only about different advertising styles, but also whether people whose job it is to sell things should be soothsayers trying to foresee the spirit of an age. Chris Powell, chief executive of BMP DDB Needham, dismisses would-be advertising gurus who 'believe they can predict broad social attitudes for up to 10 years ahead'. He calls it 'faddism' and says: 'One week they say something, then next week they say something else.'

It was, after all, a report from the Henley Centre in 1989 that loudly proclaimed the short-lived notion of the 'caring Nineties'. Nevertheless some social trends are real, if not always easy to discern. Will the Nineties stay nervy to the end? Or will the advertising gurus have to find a new label for the end of the decade?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links