Image advertising, done poorly, comes across as self-serving and hypocritical. For example, think of the millions of dollars that Philip Morris Co. Inc. spends on sappy ads that tell us how the company donates millions more to charity.
They don't hide their light under a bushel, do they? They're not alone – check out all of the television ads that air during the Sunday morning Washington insider shows like Meet the Press. It's a smorgasbord of “aren't we special” self-promotion.
Done well, however, image ads can help shape opinions about companies, products — even materials. In the case of plastics, such ads continue to perform an important service. They remind consumers about all the things they like about plastics, including the convenience, durability and safety that plastics provide. Those are attributes that most people otherwise would take for granted.
For that reason, it's a good sign that the American Plastics Council plans to hold steady on its advertising spending budget this year. The $22.2 million budget, about the same as last year, is money well spent to boost the image of plastics.
In a slowing economy, it's not an easy decision to pony up that much money for promotion. Steel and aluminum producers, for example, have cut their image-ad spending this year. Paper companies also spent less on ads in the first half of 2000, although they still spend more than the plastics industry.
The ads APC sponsors are pretty much on target in the message they send about plastics. There's no “plastics save the world” hype, no bashing of other materials and no phony claims about recyclability. The ads seem to be working. According to APC polls, plastics enjoy a favorability rating of 64 on a scale of 1-100, up from 52 in 1992.
Anyone who wonders if the ads still are needed should remember two things:
* First, the negative attitudes toward the plastics industry before the start of the ad program. Just a decade ago, consumers regularly were exposed to anti-industry propaganda like the McDonald's polystyrene burger-box boycott. Some consumers made a point of rejecting plastic sacks at grocery checkouts. Communities around the country were talking about product bans.
* Second, recall that in late 1997, APC polling showed the favorability of plastics had dropped below other materials. Industry boosted ad spending, and favorability rankings hit record highs in 1998.
The plastics industry faces plenty of challenges today, but environmental concerns aren't at the top of the list.
Environmental groups always complain that the industry should spend money on something more than its image, but APC says its polls don't find significant negative opinions on environmental questions. Still, plastics industry supporters should keep in mind that there's a segment of the population that sees the APC ads a little like the public at large looks at the Philip Morris ads. Real hard-core plastics haters won't change their minds because of some ads that show plastics in hospitals, police body armor or football helmets.