Depression Chic | Adweek Depression Chic | Adweek
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Depression Chic

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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."

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