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The Brand Intelligencer

Swystun Communications' newsletter of great content spanning branding, marketing and design is out.

Check out over 30 stories, ideas and inspirational work in The Brand Intelligencer.

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Excess to Austerity: Advertising Language in a Recession

British researchers have discovered a strong correlation between what they call a book’s “literary misery index” and the economic misery index. The former is the frequency of words such as “anger,” disgust,” “fear,” and “sadness” found in fiction books and the latter are measures of unemployment and inflation. It proves that a book’s vocabulary is influenced by hard economic times.

The study produced a graph of literary misery by cataloguing the frequency of words of roughly five million digitized books. They ran an algorithm that compared the frequency of sad words with that of happy ones.

According to Joseph Stromberg writing on Smithsonian.com, “Their analysis showed that, in the U.S., literary misery peaked in the early 1940s, just after the Great Depression. It dipped during the 50s, Recessionfollowing the economic boom driven by the country’s entry into World War II, and then slowly rose again during the 70s and 80s, after years of economic stagnation, rising unemployment and relatively high inflation rates.”

The researchers checked their U.S. findings by examining 650,000 German books. When compared to German economic conditions, they found exactly the same trend. This may not seem overly shocking that bad conditions influence the literary capture of those times, as one of the researchers put it, “global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century.”

It made me wonder about how much this misery index creeps into the marketing and advertising of the times. Since our recent global economic crisis has marketing messaging been notably influenced? My desktop research revealed one study that supports this notion. The National Communication Association in recession_specialthe U.S. analyzed print magazine advertisements for banks, credit cards, investment firms, and insurance providers and found that those “financial organizations shifted away from emotional messages in favor of informational messages during the recession.”

Michael Maslansky, president of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research noted in 2009, “The whole language of consumerism has changed. Frugality is in. Smart choices are in. Doing things that aren’t flashy and that have purpose are in.” He went on to note that actual word choice and tonality had gone from promoting ‘wants’ to emphasizing ‘needs’.

Kelly O’Keefe, professor at Brandcenter graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University believes that Super Bowl 2011 signaled a change back to more familiar themes. It was a stark departure from the Empathy-Articleprevious year’s theme of wounded manhood in the face of reduced income and unemployment. 2011 saw a return to post-adolescent guy humor suggesting that good times were returning.

Marketing has always been about the right message for the right time. When sociologists and business historians look back on these recessionary times, it will clearly show that “spend big” became “spend smart”. What is equally interesting is how quickly the former came back and how much more comfortable consumers are with messages of excess.

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