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The Sad Sell

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Would you buy an eye shadow named High Impact now? Or a fragrance called Happy? Last Monday, William Lauder, a group president of the cosmetics company founded by his grandmother Estée, gathered several executives together to discuss the marketing of popular products with names that suddenly have uncomfortable new meanings."Around the table, we were split evenly over whether Clinique Happy is an inappropriate message for the time, or actually cathartic," he said. Concerned about offending customers, Lauder promptly pulled back two upcoming ads: a Happy print ad of a woman holding sparklers, and a High Impact in-store promotion featuring an elegant container smashing into an exploding pile of powder.

As corporations and ad-agency staffers staggered back to work last week, virtually every product image was under review. Mike Campbell, executive creative director of the New York office of J. Walter Thompson, said he and his team were rethinking an upcoming campaign that would have hyped one product by attacking its rival. "Is it right to dis a competitor?" Campbell mused. "I don't think you should be knocking other people now." To be edgy and funny seems "absurd" to Eric Silver, creative director of Cliff Freeman & Partners, who conceived a humorous campaign for Mike's Hard Lemonade that shows a construction worker being impaled and a lumberjack cutting off his own foot, followed by the slogan: "A hard day calls for a hard lemonade."You'd be hard-pressed to find that commercial on TV this fall.

With the possibility of war ahead, ad agencies are bracing for the reality that there may not be many new campaigns anytime soon. "The ad climate was bad before this," says veteran ad man Jerry Della Femina, "and people who were hanging on are now in real trouble."

"In the near term, I don't think there's an opening in the customer's mind to receive messages," says William Lauder. As much as he might like to keep disbursing ad dollars to keep the economy rolling, he's constrained from doing so. "The cold, hard fact is that yes, there's patriotism, but I'm not too confident that Wall Street analysts would say, 'That's okay, we accept your not meeting your performance numbers 'cause you decided to spend more.' "


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