Depression Chic

Andrew Shaffer had a problem on his hands. The Order of St. Nick, the irreverent-greeting-card company that the former office manager runs out of his Iowa City home, was gearing up for Valentine’s Day — a bread-and-butter occasion in the card business. But few things can kill a romantic evening like a limp GDP. If your beau just lost his job, chances are you’re not getting two dozen long stems and a box of Godivas this year.

So when Shaffer sat down to write his cards, he scoured for a theme that was right for the times-memorable, romantic yet realistic.

He found it all in the Depression.

Yes, that Depression — the “great” one, with breadlines, shantytowns, work-relief programs and all the rest of it. One card shows a Dust Bowl farmer and his wife cooking a pot of slop in an open kettle. Its caption reads: “William took Martha out to eat for Valentine’s Day.” Another shows a bunch of down-and-out guys in fedoras loitering outside of an automat. “Box of chocolates?” exhorts the caption. “She’ll be lucky to get a box of rocks from me this year.”

“If Hallmark came out with this, it would be in poor taste,” Shaffer admits. “But people need to laugh in tough times. As long as it’s approached with humor, even the Great Depression works.”

Yes, it does-and Shaffer’s not the only guy to find that out. From clothing labels to retail chains (and even life insurance), some of the more inventive brands have discovered that, economic times being what they are these days, the Great Depression might just be the best marketing theme you can ask for.

“There’s a financial cry in the country right now — and that’s going to translate into shopping,” says Karen Bard, the resident pop-culture expert for online auction site eBay. Bard’s not talking about how much people are spending so much as what they’re buying. Sales of just about anything related to the Great Depression have been surging since Christmas. In the last three months, eBay’s category “Depression Era” has seen a 15 percent increase in sales traffic, with specific spikes recorded for 1930s music (up 8 percent) and cloche hats (up 65 percent). At Amazon, December 2008 sales of Depression-related titles (including The Great Crash, The Forgotten Man and Ben Bernanke’s Essays on the Great Depression) were up by a whopping 750 percent (the company does not disclose unit sales).

Depression momentum started building just before the holiday shopping rush-which was, not coincidentally, the same time that bad news about the economy began to feel merely like harbingers of far worse. Between September and October, Netflix recorded a 10 percent rise in rentals of The Grapes of Wrath. Evite, the online invitation service, started seeing Depression themes at what had been traditional holiday parties. Then, just before the shopping rush got going in earnest, the Gen-Y clothing chain Forever 21 rolled out several new items that could easily have been plucked from a 1933 Sears catalog, including a wool newsboy’s hat, high-waist skirts and Mary Jane shoes.

But the Depression’s resonance with the buying public seems to run much deeper than the popularity of items that talk about — or take style cues from — the 1930s, and this is where the real marketing shift is occurring. Ira Blumenthal, president of Atlanta-based branding consultancy Co-Opportunities, argues that it’s not so much the Depression look that’s appealing to people, but the values and credos consumers associate with it. “Even in our marketing, advertising and promotions, we seek comfort zones,” Blumenthal says. “Our lifestyles, marketing and branding are being swept into the side of going back to find a simpler place in time.” In other words, the simplicity, frugality and perceived honesty of the Great Depression period have become potent marketing themes now that Americans see themselves as the modern-day counterparts of the Great Depression generation.

Organic, the upscale clothing line by designer John Patrick, recently debuted a Spring/Summer 2009 collection called “American Gothic,” after the famous 1930 Grant Wood painting. The combinations of decidedly rural-styled clothes — rough-and-tumble cottons in earthy colors — are what one might be tempted to call “Dust Bowl Chic.” (One even featured an extra-wide brimmed take on a weather-beaten farmer’s hat.) Metaphor aside, Patrick says that there’s an all-too-contemporary foundation to the Depression-era styling. “Flash and pop has lost its appeal now,” says the designer. “People are flat broke and starting to realize that more and more each day. So it’s appropriate to scale back. We’re starved for real things.”

And he means it. Ultimately, Patrick suggests, an integral lesson of 1930s America reaches beyond the usual themes of despair and deprivation and becomes one of resourcefulness. Americans, he and others point out, ultimately worked their way out of the Depression. Blumenthal adds that while consumers obviously regard the 1930s as a time of poverty, the Great Depression era possesses nostalgia value as a lost period of honestly and simplicity, of “good, old-fashioned morality, integrity, service and durability. What we’re seeing,” he adds, “is a back-to-basics approach.”

For insurance giant Allstate, back to basics has become its literal approach. As recently as July, the insurance company aired a spot called “Grocery Store,” via Leo Burnett, Chicago, that featured actor Dennis Haysbert commenting, “If this isn’t a recession, it sure feels like one.” It was the kind of clever, high-fiving line that worked until Nov. 27, when Fed announced that the recession was official. Suddenly, Allstate needed a new tack — but what kind? With seemingly impregnable institutions like AIG collapsing into speculative heaps, the public was casting wary glances at the insurance industry. It might have seemed the perfect time to avoid any references to the Great Depression, but according to Allstate marketing vp Lisa Cochrane, it was time “to tell the story of what we’re about.”

In Burnett’s “Back to Basics” spot, Haysbert walks among a montage of photos of the Great Depression-including the famous 1936  Dorothea Lange photograph of a migrant mother and her children. “1931 was not exactly a great year to start a business,” Haysbert intones in his sonorous basso. “But that’s when Allstate opened its doors.” The script goes on to remind viewers that there have been 12 recessions since then, and the company has survived all of them. As the music builds into an optimistic crescendo of strings, Haysbert speaks of appreciating the “basics” such as home-cooked meals and time with loved ones.

Sentimental? Perhaps. That was part of the point. As script co-writer Charley Wickman put it, “Bad economic times are intensely personal.” Days after the spot started airing, Allstate began to get phone calls and e-mails thanking the company for the ad. One viewer wrote: “Your new ad…was able to put so many things in perspective and created a truly feel-good moment out of what is a frightening and unsettling time for all of us.” The point of the Depression spot, explains Burnett vp and account director Nina Abnee, was “not to be depressing. We meant it to be optimistic, [to say] together we can do this. We wanted to instill confidence in people.”

By stressing the kind of assets — home, family, quality time — that can’t be drained off by securitization, Allstate tapped into a more resonant and uplifting theme of the Depression era: Things were bad, but everybody was in the same boat. Historian Bruce Weindruch, whose Chantilly, Va.-based consultancy The History Factory uses companies’ founding stories to develop their branding messages, adds that “the Allstate ads are the closest in tone to those best ads of the Great Depression: Now that we’re over the immediate shock, it’s time to begin preparing for the future. This is a much more sophisticated, and, I would argue, effective, approach.”

But it remains to be seen how long the approach can work. While economists agree that the recession will likely deepen before it improves, if life begins looking a little bit too much like the Great Depression, stuff like retro 1930s fashion and bad Dust Bowl jokes are unlikely to get the laughs — or the sales — they’re enjoying now. As Weindruch puts it, “Nothing will undermine a history-based campaign quicker than the present.”

Indeed, the online news-satire site CAP News has already parodied the Great Depression marketing trend by recently running a business story on the debut of Green Giant “Sorry Your Assets Are Frozen Vegetables” and “Credit Crisis Cranberries.”

For now, however, Andrew Shaffer will keep looking for rights-free images of the 1930s to pair with snarky copy for his greeting cards. The way he sees it, if the dark days of the 1930s suddenly have marketing potential, it was only a matter of time. “Every other decade of the 20th century has been plundered,” he says. “The Great Depression is actually something that’s fresh.”