A Spate of Ads Gives Vent to That Howard Beale Feeling

In the age of $5-a-gallon gas, $15 baggage fees on airlines and toxic tomatoes, plenty of people probably feel ready to stick their head out the window and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Madison Avenue understands.

Thirty-two years after the indignant news anchor played by Peter Finch in the movie “Network” shouted his way into the Fed-up Hall of Fame, advertisers are trying to capture the spirit of his outrage in campaigns that reflect and capitalize on the angry mood of the American consumer.

The tone and attitude of the ads are part rant, part battle cry, part manifesto and part populist appeal. They emulate how the Finch character, Howard Beale, sounded during an era not unlike today’s when, as he put it, “everyone’s out of work or scared of losing their job” and “the dollar buys a nickel’s worth.”

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a character from the movie Network.
Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a character from the movie Network.

The Beale voice — with echoes of comedians like George Carlin and Denis Leary, plus a dash of a real-life anchor, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC — is being heard in campaigns for numerous advertisers. Here are some examples:

¶Southwest Airlines is attacking the fees that rival airlines charge their customers.

¶Harley-Davidson is proclaiming that “freedom and wind outlast hard times.”

The Versus cable network is rallying fans of the Tour de France bicycle race to “Take back the Tour.”

Jackson Hewitt is showing taxpayers who did not use its tax-preparation services angrily smashing or throwing things.

¶Eastman Kodak tells printer owners that “pricey ink stinks” and camera owners that it will “take a stand” against companies that “treat people’s most precious images as if they were nothing more than file formats.”

Consumers “are very serious about what’s going on,” said Gary M. Stibel, chief executive at the New England Consulting Group in Westport, Conn., which recently started a practice devoted to pricing and profit in a recession.

Mr. Stibel said marketers were finding that consumers would pay attention to “common sense, direct approaches, not ads that are silly or gimmicky.”

He praised the Southwest campaign for tapping into the sentiment of consumers “without stepping over the line by insulting the loyal customers” of its competitors. The campaign, by GSD&M Idea City in Austin, Tex., carries the theme “Fees don’t fly with us.”

A chart in a print ad shows how fares are lower on fee-free Southwest than on other airlines. “What have they been smoking?” the headline asks, referring to the rivals. “Apparently, your rolled-up $20s.”

The goal was “to do something disruptive” that reflects the frustrations of fliers, said Derek Pletch, vice president and group creative director at Idea City, part of the Omnicom Group.

The campaign has an edge to it, Mr. Pletch acknowledged, but it also has “an empathetic tone that tells them, ‘We understand what you’re going through.’ ”

That edge is also seen in a Harley-Davidson campaign, created by Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies. “We don’t do fear,” asserts a headline on a print ad, which is laid out to resemble the American flag.

“Over the last 105 years in the saddle, we’ve seen wars, conflicts, depression, recession, resistance and revolutions,” the ad begins, referring to the founding of Harley-Davidson in 1903. “We’ve watched a thousand hand-wringing pundits disappear in our rearview mirror.”

“But every time, this country has come out stronger than before,” the ad goes on, before concluding that the right response to the national mood ought to be, “Let’s ride.”

The genesis of the ad was “listening to our rider,” said Scott Beck, director for advertising and promotions at Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee, particularly those who have bought motorcycles recently.

“Clearly, there’s a history of an unconventional attitude that is core to us as a brand,” he added. “That’s why we felt so strongly about it.”

The response to the campaign has been “tremendous,” Mr. Beck said, listing examples like the more than 21,000 comments left on the Harley-Davidson Web site (harley-davidson.com) and the distribution by dealers of bandanas and T-shirts bearing the text of the ad.

The campaign for Versus, a cable network owned by the Comcast Corporation, is intended to draw viewers to the network’s coverage of the Tour de France bicycle race, which starts July 5.

The “Take back the Tour” campaign, by a New York agency named the Concept Farm, addresses the damage to the race from scandals that involved performance-enhancing drug use by leading cyclists. After dismissing “the dopers, politics and critics” because “they ripped the soul out of this race,” the ads — in print, online (takebackthetour.com) and on T-shirts — declare the tour belongs not to them but to the fans.

The campaign “makes a blunt statement,” said Griffin Stenger, partner and creative director at the Concept Farm, to persuade viewers to “identify with that attitude of ‘Yeah, I feel that, too; I’m sick of all the negativity.’ ”

“On some fundamental level everyone’s sick of everything"

Ray Mendez, also a partner and creative director at the Concept Farm, said he did not believe the campaign was too angry, especially at a time when “on some fundamental level everyone’s sick of everything, economically, politically.”

That point was echoed by Andrew Brief, director for client services at DeVito/Verdi in New York, the agency for Jackson Hewitt.

“When times are bad, people are looking at their tax refunds as their biggest payday of the year,” Mr. Brief said, “so they can really relate to that feeling” of anger displayed in the commercials. They include a musician smashing his guitar and an office worker shattering a glass cabinet.

DeVito/Verdi also creates a campaign for the Sports Authority retail chain, owned by an investor group led by Leonard Green & Partners, that aims to reassure shoppers worried about rising prices.

In one commercial, as a golfer loses a ball in the water, an announcer asserts: “You’re a golfer. You’ve paid enough already,” then promises that Sports Authority is “dedicated to the dedicated.”

Some advertisers that seek to address the national mood are delivering pitches in a less intense, more whimsical manner than marketers like Southwest or Harley-Davidson.

For instance, a campaign for Absolut vodka, which carries the theme “In an Absolut world,” seems as mad as, well, heck. Ads by TBWA/Chiat/Day in New York, part of the TBWA Worldwide division of Omnicom, depict a politician with a Pinocchio nose, a nice apartment in Manhattan that costs $300 a month and a factory with smokestacks that emit bubbles.

“Absolut is different in that we’re about presenting a more idealized world,” said Tim Murphy, vice president for marketing at the Absolut Spirits Company in New York, part of the V&S Group division of V&S Vin and Sprit, the Swedish company that distills Absolut.

“The brand stands for sociability, celebration,” he added, so the campaign is “meant to be a more positive light, not in a way that’s confrontational or negative or disparaging anyone else.”

And some marketers are finding they cannot always channel their inner Howard Beales.

Among the ads in the Southwest campaign was one featuring a mock coupon that read, “Don’t #$*!% me over,” which appeared above a declaration that “Southwest is the only airline that accepts this coupon.” That ad, however, was withdrawn.