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.