(August 4, 2003) — We're a little nervous about plans to combine the plastics industry's advertising campaign with a new image-building effort from the chemical industry. From our vantage point, it's not clear if the will and the money exist to maintain plastics and boost chemicals.
Chemical makers want to improve their dismal image. The public sees chemicals as a dangerous industry needing tighter regulation, and the industry's opinion poll scores are about equal to HMOs.
Plastic, on the other hand, has a much stronger public image and enjoys a much more favorable political climate.
Why the disparity? Credit the American Plastics Council, which spends about $19 million annually on advertising, including the well-known “Plastics make it possible” campaign.
Now the chemical industry wants to boost its image, too. The American Chemistry Council, the American Plastics Council's parent since 2002, in October will consider a plan for a major image campaign, and it has said it wants to combine it with APC's campaign.
We wonder, will a closer association with chemicals hurt plastics?
It's not a simple question, but it's important. The $250 million-plus that the plastics industry has spent on advertising in the past decade has helped the industry's image. Of course, no one involved wants to hurt plastics. Many major chemical firms have significant plastics businesses, and they want to protect the investment they've put in APC's efforts. ACC has made that clear.
But there's that pesky question of money.
The plastics industry doesn't seem to have a lot of room to cut ad spending. APC reduced spending to $17 million a few years ago, but the image of plastics dipped below competing materials and APC quickly reversed course and raised spending.
One industry insider doubts that plastics spending could be cut to, say, $15 million, without feeling some pain. That means the chemical industry presumably would have to be willing to fund, essentially, a separate major campaign over many years, over and above what the industry spends on plastics.
In a good economy maybe that's not so much of a worry. But the chemical and plastics industry is suffering through its third year of economic stagnation. Money is tight all around. ACC officials say they are still drawing up plans for exactly how the two campaigns could be merged. They talk about spending $30 million to $40 million the first year, including the plastics money.
Will ACC devote that kind of cash to advertising? One major ACC member, Huntsman Corp., recently resigned and told the trade association that it was disappointed that the group hadn't made any real cuts in its budget, and that the 2002 merger with APC hadn't saved much money. A Huntsman official closely involved in the APC ad effort said ACC has yet to spell out how it will combine the campaigns and protect plastics.
ACC says the current plastics ads will run their course through 2005. And they note that ACC plans a different kind of campaign than APC — more time speaking to industry employees and a very heavy Internet presence touting the contributions of the industry. They don't foresee running major ads the first year.
When full details emerge, the concern we've expressed here for plastics could be moot. It may be possible to combine the two. But considering the risks involved for plastics, and the tight budgets in the industry, it's a decision that has to be made cautiously.