The collapse of the Enron Corporation is hastening a sea change in the way American business talks to consumers in its advertising.
The change has been under way as a result of the dot-com bust, the terrorist attacks and the economic slowdown. All those dislocations have led Madison Avenue to discontinue campaigns that celebrated how young business upstarts took risks, broke rules and thought "outside the box." For instance, Enron itself which in a campaign in 2000 demanded "Ask why" urged people to "question things" and asserted it was "changing the way industries think."
The successor campaigns are more serious and measured, focusing on topics that had been considered boring, like continuity, experience and customer service. The actors portraying business owners and executives may now wear suits and ties, and sometimes even have gray hair.
Signs of the new old-fashionedness are coming every few minutes in the NBC coverage of the Winter Olympics. "Times have changed," declare commercials for E*Trade Financial by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, an agency owned by the Omnicom Group, which mock how online trading and venture capitalists helped feed the Internet stock frenzy.
Spots for United Parcel Service by the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies, describe new U.P.S. services with a humble customer focus rather than an omniscient corporate focus as evident in the theme, "What can Brown do for you?"
And commercials for NBC's parent company, General Electric, salute moments from the past, including film of Thomas A. Edison, to embrace rather than eschew tradition. The goal of the spots, by the New York office of another Omnicom agency, BBDO Worldwide, is a very un-Enron-like demonstration that "for over 100 years, G.E. has been a company powered by ideas," as an announcer asserts.
"We wanted the ads to give a sense of the depth and scope of the company," said Beth Comstock, vice president for corporate communications at General Electric in Fairfield, Conn., "juxtaposing the old and new to show where we've been and where we're going."
In other words, when it comes to electricity, Enron, no; Edison, yes.
Until recently, "it was Adobe saying `Defy the rules' and Qwest saying `Change everything' and Merrill Lynch saying `Be bullish' and Apple saying `Think different,' " remarked Warren Berger, the author of "Advertising Today" and the editor of One, a magazine published by the One Club for Art and Copy in New York.
"Now, there's Enron hangover," he said. "Anything revolutionary, urging people to grab the brass ring, is seen as negative."
Mr. Berger is to be the moderator of a panel discussion tonight on creativity in the post-Enron environment at the One Club in Manhattan.
"When I watch TV, there's more of a cautionary tone, seeking to reassure," said one of Mr. Berger's panelists, Patrick O'Neill, the co-executive creative director at the New York office of TWBA/Chiat/Day.
"I don't feel that `can-do' spirit any more, because the can-do American capitalist system went too far with Enron," Mr. O'Neill said. "After all the money people lost, it's not believable when a company promises you can do everything."
"Companies said to the world, `We make money a whole different way and it's too complicated for you to understand,' " said Chuck Porter, chairman of Crispin, Porter & Bogusky in Miami. "The collapse of Enron signaled the end of that wild and woolly, gunslinger mentality."
The change is being accompanied by starkly different visual imagery for the ads, which "is going to be a little less wacky and a little more normal," he added. "People will look more like George W. Bush and less like Jerry Garcia.
"Being `out of the box' means being edgy, and edgy is out," said Cheryl Berman, chairwoman and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA in Chicago.
"People are more skeptical of hotshot know-it-alls," she said. "They want track records, proof of what you can really do, what you can really deliver."
If "out of the box" or "outside the box" are still evoked, it is as parody, like a campaign for Grape-Nuts cereal, sold by Kraft Foods, that carries a headline inviting consumers "to think out of the bowl," with the word "box" crossed out.
The Taco Bell division of Tricon Global Restaurants has a campaign carrying the theme "think outside the bun," which spoofs the jargon of dot-com and high-technology marketing. The Grape-Nuts ads are produced by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in New York, part of the WPP Group, and the Taco Bell ads are from the San Francisco office of Foote, Cone & Belding, owned by Interpublic.
Even more pronounced changes may be ahead. "Our society may not look to business and business idioms to define who we are," said Donny Deutsch, chairman and chief executive at another Interpublic agency, Deutsch in New York, "if people feel business isn't working for them."
"Instead of saying you're a dot- commer or a corporate chairman, the answer may be `I'm a great squash player' or `I'm active on my school board,' " he said. "Or we may return to idealizing individual professions like doctors, teachers and firefighters, who are the new rock stars."
STUART ELLIOTT, The New York Times February 20, 2002
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