Suddenly the conspicuous consumer became the conspicuous coupon clipper.
Bad if you own a Hummer dealership. Good if you own a real value proposition.
I came of advertising age in the 1980s amidst Gordon Gekko, Madonna living in the material world, Donald Trump blow-drying natural colored hair and Nancy Reagan's new policy towards the china cabinet.
I worked on luxury liquors, luxury destinations, luxury magazines and luxury cosmetics.
That was then.
Today, I work on a value-oriented supermarket, a value-oriented tire, a value-oriented restaurant chain and a minor league baseball team that charges less for a great seat than the Yankees charge for a beer.
I work for an agency that has always understood that the vast majority of Americans eschew Kobe for Kraft, Dior for Dockers, and Wall Street for Walmart.
In other words, I no longer work in New York. And it's been kind of fun to watch big, hip agencies and clients scramble for a way to speak the language of value. Some have suddenly discovered that offering a deal might actually drive traffic. Others have told consumers that if they get canned after buying their products, they'll help with the payments. And then there are those who've suddenly recognized that the nouveau-nervous are a growing demographic and therefore have stopped presenting their goods or services as if they were worthy only of those who have truly arrived.
Because our arrival has been delayed, thank you Mr. Recession. And while we're waiting to arrive, we're all riding coach.
But here's the big question: Do we still want to arrive?
Or have we discovered another place to go?
When the economy swings back into action, when the Dow hits five digits again, when our 401(k) starts to have a little more K, and when human resources departments once again start to use resumes for more than paper towels, where will our priorities go?
None of us can be sure. Hell, I haven't been sure of anything since my financial guy told me 18 months ago that I was well on my way to a comfortable retirement. Let me take that back, I am sure I'll be working at least five years longer than anticipated in order to have a middling retirement.
But here's what I suspect: We're not going back to "gotta have it, God I want it, when will it be in stores, I've got the black one but now I want the titanium one, St. Bart's is nice but Montserrat is nicer" attitudes anytime soon. I think we've learned a little something. And I think we'll stay scared and scarred for a spell.
For marketers and advertisers, I think we'll have to cool it for a while with those "you've arrived" strategies. I think messages that make us feel better about ourselves will succeed. But messages that attempt to make us feel better than others will fall flat on their face. Maybe that's wishful thinking, but we've all been in this mess together for over a year now and folks seem to be craving a good, strong dose of authenticity mixed with reality.
Fantasy is nice. Aspiration is wonderful. But when you've lost your job, when your house is suddenly worth less than the swing set in the backyard, when Madoff made off with your future, when you haven't opened your brokerage statement in six months, you're not ready to shell out for an intangible reward. No, you'll be happy with a balanced checkbook.
And, please understand, this is not bad. This is good. Americans will start spending again, that's what we do well. But I believe we'll start buying with more conscience and less conceit. And we'll continue to market and advertise with a more humane, empathetic, realistic and attainable sensibility.
We'll see how long that lasts.