The dilemma facing the American Chemistry Council and the American Plastics Council as they contemplate blending APC's long-running advertising campaign with ACC's nascent one is simple: Will mixing the relatively popular plastics image with an unpopular chemical industry hurt plastics?
It's a question that has some of the stewards of the plastics effort concerned.
APC has spent $250 million in the past decade on a mammoth ad campaign that it said has boosted the industry's public image dramatically.
Now ACC, anxious to turn around the dismal public standing of the chemical industry, is considering a similar effort.
But ACC, the parent of APC, wants to make one integrated campaign, a decision that is raising questions among some plastics executives. ACC officials stress they absolutely want to maintain the gains of plastics. No one says that can't be done, but some are questioning how it will happen and whether the money will be there to meet both plastics and chemical goals.
``There have been people who have said we can't jeopardize this [APC campaign], but nobody has come forward with a plan as to how this equity in the plastics program will be protected,'' said Don Olsen, spokesman for Huntsman Corp. and vice chairman of the APC advertising task force.
Olsen has been closely involved with APC's ad effort since it started. Huntsman recently announced it is leaving ACC and APC over issues unrelated to the ad campaign. Huntsman thinks ACC should go ahead with the image campaign, Olsen said.
Another industry executive familiar with both the plastics and chemicals ad programs compared the combination idea to merging the public image of a well-regarded company like Johnson and Johnson with Enron.
``There is a concern that if the two campaigns transition too quickly while attitudes about chemicals are very low, there is a greater likelihood that attitudes about plastics would be eroded,'' the executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The public image of the chemical industry is quite low, only slightly higher than nuclear power or managed care, according to industry research. The chemical industry has a favorability rating, a way of measuring consumer acceptance, in the low 40s, ACC said.
Plastics, by comparison, rates in the upper 60s. When the plastics campaign started 10 years ago - amid threats of deselection and loads of unfavorable legislation - the industry rated in the low 50s, still well above where chemicals are today.
ACC officials acknowledge the concern from the plastics community, but said they will proceed carefully and cautiously based on research. They said that every APC company also is in ACC, and ACC will want to protect the gains of plastics if it moves ahead with the chemicals campaign. The groups both are based in Arlington, Va.
``The first objective of the program we're proposing will have to be to protect those plastics favorability ratings,'' said Dennis Reilley, chairman of Praxair Inc. and leader of the ACC initiative. ``We've spent too much time, too much money and too much sweat equity getting that to where it is today. That has to be the first priority in any program we roll out.''
ACC officials said they still are determining how they would integrate the two campaigns.
``We believe in the end it has to be one program, not two,'' Reilley said. ``We believe that although it can't be day one, it can't be years in the future either.''
ACC spokesman Morrie Goodman said the current plastics ads will finish their two-year cycle, slated to run to mid-2005. And he said that ACC's campaign does not envision running ads in the first year, instead focusing on things like getting the employee base at ACC companies motivated.
Details are being worked out.
The campaign will play to three bases - employees, policymakers and ``informed Americans.'' At an industry presentation last month, ACC officials rolled out a prototype of a broad campaign that would include mass-media ads, Internet ads and internal communication.
The public campaign would bring the look of a chemical equation to the airwaves. It would feature the word ``essential'' followed by a subscript 2 and then another word, such as essential2economic growth, or essential2living.
The campaign would highlight favorable facts about the industry, including that it is the largest exporting sector in the U.S. economy, pays more than other manufacturing sectors or is responsible for 15 percent of all U.S. patents. The campaign also would show how chemicals are crucial to valuable, everyday products.
When people in test groups were told those things, preliminary tests showed that favorable impressions of the industry rose from 30 percent to 65 percent.
Money remains the big question. ACC wants to spend $30 million to $40 million the first year, including the $19 million spent on the plastics campaign, Goodman said. Internally, ACC officials were floating figures like $45 million in 2005 and $35 million in 2006. Goodman said ACC officials still are deciding exactly how much money they need.
Recent experience suggests that there may not be much spending that could be trimmed from the APC campaign without compromising results.
APC officials cut ad spending to about $17 million in 1997, but saw their favorability ratings drop below that of competing materials. They quickly boosted spending and since have tried to be more precise in media buys, but some officials take that as a lesson that spending may be as low as it can be.
ACC officials are setting their target high. Goodman said they would like chemicals to be ranked as high as plastics in opinion polls, and he said that some involved with the chemicals reputation initiative think that one day a public tie-in with chemicals actually could bolster the image of plastics, rather than being a possible drag.
ACC will decide on the initiative at its October board meeting.
ACC officials hope the campaign will lead to a more favorable political and legal climate for the industry, as they say it has done for plastics. But some industry sources said it's not at all clear if there's enough support for the significant spending that would be needed.
``Does the industry collectively have the will to spend the billions of dollars over the period of time it will take?'' one executive said. ``We won't know until October how much will there is.''