TV Commercials Play on Accounting Credibility Crisis

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Congressional lawmakers, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the accounting profession are all struggling to restore confidence in the financial reporting process, but Madison Avenue advertising agencies seem to be going off in the other direction. They hope to capitalize on the credibility crisis by building business for their clients on the basis of investors' fears and doubts.

Attempts to leverage accounting scandals and economic recession have already resulted in several TV commercials, including one rejected by a major television network as being in too poor taste to run in prime time.

  • Charles Schwab is reportedly promoting its business through commercials that play on the negative publicity surrounding financial reporting and securities analysts in competing firms. A key Schwab ad depicts a brokerage firm hyping stocks to unsuspecting customers and using the phrase, "Let's put some lipstick on this pig." CBS found this imagery too negative to run and refused to air the commercial. But other networks apparently find it perfectly acceptable and have given it plenty of airplay.
  • IBM's marketing managers are said to have embraced an ad campaign that builds on negative images of accounting/consulting firms from whom it hopes to win market share. One IBM ad uses the metaphor of a basketball team, whose owners and coaches are saddened, though frankly not surprised, that the chalkboard-diagramming "expert" charges them $4 million, and he's not even sticking around to see his recommendations through. Another IBM ad shows nervous business executives trying to create an advertising jingle that will distract customers from their company's terrible customer service and financial condition.

AdWeek notes that businesses have traditionally shied away from negative ads, such as the Schwab and IBM ads, because they tend to turn customers off. But, it says, IBM reasons that clients are already looking for reasons to distance themselves from the Big Five, and it is simply providing a helpful rationalization for making the safer choice. ("Going Negative: Advertising Learns to Leverage Scandal and Recession," AdWeek, August 5, 2002.)

-Rosemary Schlank

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