The last major breakthrough in advertising involved Joe Isuzu, the manic, lying pitchman who came along pushing a Japanese car in 1986 and stayed to become part of the national consciousness. The idea was simple but revolutionary: We're overselling our product, just like every other commercial you've ever seen, but since we're doing it so outrageously, and since we admit upfront we're doing it, you might want to take a look.
People did. The ad garnered a lot of media attention, and -- not least -- increased sales. So now comes the next wrinkle: an ad that encourages you to consider not buying at all. It's titled "A Plea for Responsible Consumption" and found in the current issue of the Utne Reader, the alternative press bimonthly. The key passage in the lengthy text reads as follows:
"Today, more than ever, the direction of an environmentally conscious style is not to have luxury or conspicuous consumption written all over your attire. This is still our message. We believe this could be best achieved by simply asking yourself before you buy something (from us or any other company) whether this is something you really need ... We'll be happy to adjust our business up or down accordingly."
This might be an unexceptional piece of copy from an environmental organization, but from the trendy clothing chain Esprit? If people took this ad completely to heart -- especially with lines like, "We do need clothes, yes, but so many?" -- Esprit's sales would take a tumble.
"I can't recall a similar ad," says Kurt Barnard of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report. "On the other hand, it's perhaps a little more riskless than it would appear. I think what Esprit has recognized is that we're very much in a conservative, restrained and even frugal shopping environment. All they're doing is telling customers, 'Hey, we think what you're doing is right,' and making it appear as if it's Esprit's thought."
Susan Alexander, a spokesman for the company, says there are two ways to look at the ad.
"Yes," she says, "sales could go down because of it." On the other hand, "Polls are saying people are starting to vote with their wallets. They're not buying from companies they perceive to be bad or irresponsible, and are more likely to buy from companies they think are doing the right thing."
And if a company is talking to you about "buying less stuff," aren't they doing the right thing? Refreshing as the Esprit ad is, it's still the natural heir to Joe Isuzu. They both work by reverse psychology, saying one thing but meaning the opposite.
"Clothes do wear out," concedes Alexander, "and it may be that people will choose to get them from a company that's trying to do the right thing, and they'll come to us instead of someone else."