What Recession? Businesses Market Clever Ad Campaigns to Boost Spending

Companies are doing whatever (and we mean whatever) to generate business.

February 10, 2009, 2:16 PM

May 15, 2009 — -- Americans may not feel like spending money on vacations, but advertisers are targeting them anyway, developing clever ads to lure business back to cities and airlines that have been smarting from the pinch of the recession.

In its latest creative move to attract travelers back to Las Vegas, Nev., which is among the major U.S. cities hit hardest by the recession, the city's tourism board has released a new ad confronting rumors that Las Vegas is deserted.

And Air New Zealand was willing to bare all if it meant enticing more consumers to buy tickets on its planes. The airline developed an ad that depicts the flight attendants dressed in nothing but body paint to promote just how serious they are about their no-hidden-fees policy.

"It's a fact that people have closed their pocketbooks," said Steve Hall, the editor of the marketing industry blog Adrants.com. "They're saving and listening to economic advisers who are saying do this and not that, and yet there are companies out there whose sole existence depends on people opening up their wallet, taking money out and giving it to them."

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The desperation to stay out of the red has forced many companies to do whatever it takes to retain their customers and possibly attract new business, Hall said.

ABCNews.com took a closer look at some of the most original ways advertisers and companies are turning to desperate measures to promote their products -- and encourage consumer spending -- during the recession.

Las Vegas' 'What Happens Here, Stays Here' Ads

Las Vegas still has plenty of sin to go around; at least that's what the city's marketers would like consumers to think.

A new ad campaign released this month by Las Vegas Tourism revamps its old slogan "What Happens Here, Stays Here," and attempts to refute claims that nobody is interested in all that Sin City offers.

"All of the news coverage made it sound like things were closing down and we were boarding up the twon, and that's clearly not the case," said Betsy Ward, the director of communications for R&R Partners, the firm handling Las Vegas' advertising.

"We had to show, in a dramatic way, that regular people are coming here and having a blast," she said.

And dramatic it is.

The ad depicts faux television reporter Candace Newman delivering the news on the dismal reality of life in Las Vegas: Empty cabanas and pools where "the water's warm, but nobody's getting in."

But as soon as her broadcast ends, Newman strips down to a skimpy bikini and joins the revelers in the nearby pool.

"We decided to push back a little on the message that the sky is falling," Ward said. "Yes, things are tough but people still need a break and Las Vegas is the perfect place to do it."

Earlier this year, Las Vegas Tourism tried to alter the traditional image of the city by running ads that suggested travelers didn't have to be high-rollers to have a great Vegas experience.

A series of spots features all 358 residents of Cranfills Gap, Texas, traveling to Las Vegas for an all-expenses paid vacation, a ploy aiming to show that even small-town America can enjoy Vegas.

Air New Zealand Bares It All

Air New Zealand staff members are baring it all -- for the sake of business, of course -- and they're not at all shy about doing it.

In an ad released earlier this week, Air New Zealand painted 80 of its staff members in body paint, eight of whom were wearing no clothes at all, in an effort to prove to customers that the airline is serious about not hiding anything.

The airline was promoting its "no-hidden-fees policy" that it hopes will boost business.

As for the issue of nudity, the ad's creators strategically placed beverage carts and luggage in the way of the staff's most private parts.

Pepsi's 'MacGruber' Super Bowl Commercial

Though Pepsi's "Saturday Night Live" sketch-turned-commercial may have initially confused consumers who were unsure whether they were watching a late-night sketch or an ad for the soda, industry insiders say that cutting through the clutter and standing out -- even if you confuse a few viewers -- is imperative during an economic downturn.

"SNL's" "MacGruber" sketches first appeared during the NBC show and then later during the Super Bowl. All were collaborations between "SNL" producers and Pepsi, which paid "SNL" to run the sketches during the program and then also paid for the time during the big game.

In each of the three versions of the ad -- which is a spoof on the 1980s' special agent McGyver -- "SNL" actor Will Forte constantly touts Pepsi products as he and two friends (one of them played by original "McGyver" actor Richard Dean Anderson) try to escape from a building that is about to explode. In the third version of the ad, Forte's obsession with Pepsi has grown and he is no longer making sense when he speaks. He just repeats "Pepsi" over and over again.

"Everyone does product placement, but this was way over the top," said Hall. "The ads illustrated how insanely insane product placement has become."

"This is definitely a result of the poor economy," he said. "Advertisers are finding ways to hold up their products and say their names as much as possible."

David Griner, the social media strategist for marketing agency Luckie & Co. and a writer for Adweek's blog, Adfreak.com, said the "MacGruber" campaign was also a way to cut costs, try something new and experiment with ways to advertise effectively without blowing the budget.

"They didn't blow their money on high budget ads but instead found a way to get people to keep talking about it on their own," said Griner.

Starbucks vs. McDonald's McCafe

Daily coffee may be the last place caffeine addicts want to cut corners, but high-end coffee chain Starbucks is quickly learning that even its most loyal customers are cringing at the thought of spending a lot for a cup of joe.

As a result, Starbucks has begun to offer a value menu of its own -- $3.95 will get you a coffee and a breakfast pastry or sandwich. Industry experts were left to wonder just how desperate Starbucks must be when it starts competing with McDonald's speciality coffees for business, now available in the coffee bars located in McDonald's restaurants, called McCafes.

Seeing Starbucks adapt its highbrow image to one that boasts value and addresses cost savings is out of line with the company's brand image, said Griner, who suggests this may be the most desperate move a company can make in a wavering economy.

"Starbucks is in a tight spot," said Griner. "When the economy was good, they spent years telling people they're a luxury item, but suddenly they're saying they're cheap and affordable. You can't be both."

Hall agreed: "There is some desperation on the part of Starbucks."

"McDonald's has always sold cheap stuff," Hall said. "McDonald's and Starbucks mean two entirely different things."

Further capitalizing on the public's want for all things cheap, McCafe will be a major sponsor of New York's Fashion Week. While fashionistas such as Vogue's Anna Wintour and the Olsen twins are routinely seen clutching their Starbucks cups, McDonald's is hoping to take over where Starbucks has previously been the item du jour.

Wendy's '3conomics' Commercial

In an ad campaign touting three 99-cent sandwiches, fast-food chain Wendy's -- touting the deal as "3conomics" -- tried an advertising technique Hall said he's seeing again and again: trying to use the poor economy in advertising as a way to relate to customers.

In the Wendy's ad, three guys are sitting around a lunch table, all with Wendy's sandwiches in front of them. When one begins to explain to the other two the "basic principles of 3conomics," the others ask him how he knows so much about the deals.

"I used to work on Wall Street," he says.

"They are of course mentioning the economy because people understand it," said Hall. "They're not trying to make fun of it, but they're showing that everyone is affected by the economy and if they're not they know someone who is."

Broadcasters trying to garner ad dollars are even turning to their talent to promote products as a way to reach those viewers who normally tune out during regular commercial breaks.

ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" often features "live commercials" during which characters from the show appear in ads for a product.

In the clip shown here, Kimmel's real-life Uncle Frank Potenza and the show's security guard Guillermo Rodriguez talk about how "sporty" and "luxurious" the Pontiac Solstice GXP is as they sit inside a bright-yellow Solstice.

"This sort of thing is awkward," said Hall. "It reeks of desperation in that it's endless proliferation of advertising because there's so much out there marketers are forced to do more."

"Everyone is looking for a new method that will cut through the clutter," he said.

Griner said that live ads are just "another gimmick aimed at blurring the line between marketing and entertainment."

"Or at least aimed at slipping past the fast-forward button on your DVR."

Burger King's 'Whopper Sacrifice'

Fast-food chain Burger King's "Whopper Sacrifice" campaign sought to save both its customers and the company a chunk of change at a time when every cent counts.

Burger King developed an application on the popular social networking site Facebook offering customers a coupon for a free Whopper if they de-friended 10 of their contacts.

The application has since been removed from Facebook because of privacy concerns, but Griner said the Burger King experiment drove home an important economic lesson. Penny-pinching customers were able to earn free food and the company did not break the bank with the campaign.

"This is somewhat of a economical message that you don't have to spend millions and millions on one really nice ad when you can create a lot of buzz by creating something that is smart and carries itself," he said.

Miller Lite's One-Second Commercial

Don't blink or you might miss Miller Lite's cost-saving commercial.

Intended to further its reputation as the more affordable beer, Miller Lite produced a one-second ad that cost far less than a full 30-second ad did during the Super Bowl.

"They're saying, 'OK, we're Miller and we're hurting economically now too,'" said Hall. "Everyone's struggling and so are we so we're not going to go all the way out there, which is a reference against Budweiser, which paid millions for Super Bowl spots."

"This drove home that their product is affordable and they are trying to look more frugal," said Griner.

Griner adds that while some companies -- namely FedEx -- did not advertise during this year's Super Bowl, Miller was smart to maintain a presence in a fiscally responsible way.

Hyundai's latest campaign offers what would have once been unimaginable: Buy a car and enjoy it… until you lose your job. Then the dealership will take it back.

"This is classic auto manufacturer desperation," said Hall. "This is unprecedented. We're seeing zero percent financing and huge discounts."

Griner said that while it's certainly a dramatic gesture, Hyundai is smart to address a real and noticeable public trend.

"If one thing is clear it's that everyone is seeing job loss and Hyundai tied their campaign to that in a way that wasn't predatory or disgusting and is actually kind of nice," he said.

"There's something charming about this approach."

Dodge's Buy-One-Get-One-Free Promotion

It's not just Hyundai trying to lure customers into its dealerships. Dodge dealerships across the nation have reportedly offered two-for-one sales, by which they will sell you a second car for as little as $1.

"It's dramatic and noticeable and a real conversation starter, but it's still within their brand image of being affordable," said Griner.

This is just another way to get creative -- or some say desperate -- to sell cars.

Spirit Airlines Puts Beer Ads on Flight Attendants' Aprons

It may seem like advertisements already take up every inch of free space, but Spirit Airlines has found yet another spot to place company logos and increase profit as the airline industry struggles to survive.

The airline has put Bud Light logos on its employees' aprons, upsetting flight attendants who argue that they are being treated like "walking billboards."

"I think you're going to see more and more brand affiliation and brand alliance anywhere you're selling space," said Griner. "Especially for discount airlines."

"It's something people have been complaining about for years -- that advertisements are everywhere -- but the economic trends will give airlines even more reason to put product placement pretty much anywhere they physically can."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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