WASHINGTON — Instead of just facing off in smoke-filled political back rooms, trade groups representing the nation's materials now seem to spend as much time and money battling for television audiences in smoke-filled living rooms.
After several years of watching the plastics industry spend millions of dollars on consumer advertising and generally succeed in boosting its image, aluminum and steel trade groups have joined the fray.
Aluminum now spends about $14 million a year and is looking to increase that, while steel is spending $20 million this year, just below the $21 million that the American Plastics Council plans to pump into advertising. The information comes from reviewing federal tax returns and from interviews with association officials.
The impact of all the competing ads, however, is not clear.
The Washington-based Aluminum Association started significant advertising to promote aluminum as a soft drink package in 1996, targeting markets with the heaviest soft drink consumption, said Yvonne Folkerts, director of public affairs.
In those markets — covering 21 percent of the U.S. population — sales for aluminum cans are up while PET is flat or down, she said. She declined to release details. The ads focus on aluminum cans' recyclability and on the freshness and quick-chill capabilities of the metal.
``I would tell you that the member companies that support this campaign would not support it unless the results are good,'' she said. ``There were several industries out there promoting themselves and we were kind of losing our halo as the most-recycled container.''
But officials for the main PET trade group, the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., disputed the notion that soft drink sales in plastic have suffered and said that NAPCOR does not see the need for a similar campaign.
``I would say that all of the data we have seen is just the opposite — single-serve PET containers are growing substantially,'' said NAPCOR President Luke Schmidt. NAPCOR recently started tracking national sales of PET bottles but Schmidt declined to provide those numbers.
The aluminum ads began with about $10 million — doubling the Aluminum Association's annual budget — and have since expanded to about $14 million, said AA President Steve Larkin.
The group wants to build on the ads and get its customers and suppliers more involved, including asking them to help pay for the ads, Folkert said.
Thus far, the newer campaigns by competitors do not seem to have hurt the image of plastics, but the industry's public opinion surveys do not try to gauge the specific impact of other advertising, according to the Washington-based APC.
``I can tell you we are at an all-time high [in favorability of plastics], which might suggest there has not been a negative impact,'' said Susan Moore, APC's vice president of communications. ``The potential is always there.''
Some indicators for plastics dipped below safe levels in public opinion polling last year, but APC boosted spending and found that many of the polling results rose to favorable record levels. Some environmental ratings for plastics continued to show problems, however.
Moore said the plastics industry has not changed its ads in response to competitors' campaigns, even though both are strongly focused on environmental and recycling messages.
``We've got a very specific goal — to make sure that plastics is on an even playing field,'' Moore said. ``We plan to maintain that. I don't think we've got any reason to be concerned.''
Unlike plastics, which wants to preserve earlier gains, the steel industry's campaign is trying to make some gains and change consumer behavior.
The industry is in the second year of a five-year, $100 million effort targeted at 25- to 54-year-old women, who make most buying decisions on products with steel, said William Heenan, president of the Steel Recycling Institute in Pittsburgh. Heenan sits on the board of the Washington-based Steel Alliance, which runs the ad campaign. Alliance officials would not comment.
The steel effort is changing attitudes but not behavior, thus far.
``We're very happy to see some of the awareness and favorability going up dramatically,'' Heenan said. ``The goal is to change behavior and have people say, `I want a refrigerator with steel encasing or a house with a steel frame.' We're not there yet.''
The paperboard packaging industry recently began a much smaller ad campaign targeted at decision makers in consumer products companies, said Marla Donahue, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Paperboard Packaging Council.
The $350,000 campaign started in June and is focused on trade press advertising, she said.