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Ads Reflect In-Your-Face Culture

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The seemingly conflicting notions of harsh, in-your-face realism and human affirmation have risen to the surface as dominant themes in advertising, according to account planners who monitor cultural trends for some of the region's largest agencies.

Current popular culture, obsessed with gritty "reality" programs such as Survivor and game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, increasingly displays a "winner takes all" mentality with a need for monetary success mixed in, said Justin Holloway, executive vice president at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos in Boston.

In keeping with these themes, Holloway sees a trend in advertising toward "brutal reality" and "ruthless self-centeredness."

A case in point, he said, is a recent commercial for Atlanta-based Church's Chicken, in which a mom brings dinner to the table only to find her young son lighting up a cigarette, angering his father. The spot closes with the question, "Maybe it's your cooking?" Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York, crafted the execution.

"The ads today have a more reality-based, unfiltered, raw element to them, and there's less of a hard-core sales pitch," agreed Robert Silagi, senior vice president in the consumer insight group at Arnold Communications in Boston.

Inevitably, however, planners predict a backlash to the perceived greed and lack of civility typified in some campaigns. In fact, this countertrend may already be underway, making life-affirming, positive advertising the route to go in successful branding campaigns of the future. The hiring by Church's Chicken of BaylessCronin, Atlanta, to "tweak" Cliff Freeman's ads, which sources said consumers had found somewhat too "risqué," may be a nod in this direction [Adweek, June 12].

"People have always responded to work that is honest and speaks to them," said Kristin Volk, executive vice president and director of strategic planning at Deutsch Boston. "The best campaigns find ways to plug the brand into people's lives."

Spots that feature people enjoying themselves and doing little or nothing with their time have become enormously popular, such as the award winning "Whassup?" ads from DDB Chicago and Arnold's "Da Da Da" spot for Volkswagen of America.

"There's a lot of evidence that consumers are looking to experience life more," said Silagi. "Advertisers are tapping into the sentiment of wanting to enjoy life."