Kai Ryssdal: One easy way to get a handle on the economic zeitgeist is to just plop yourself down in front of the television. A couple of years ago, every pitchman on the tube seemed to be selling stuff using an economic twist. Then the economy started to improve a bit, and advertisers backed off.
But now as consumer sentiment sags and stocks do too, Marketplace's Jennifer Collins reports downturn advertising is creeping back into our commercial breaks.
Jennifer Collins: West Coast burger chain Carl's Jr. is known for its tongue-in-cheek ads. Its new commercials -- featuring images of Wall Street signs and gold bars -- are no exception.
Carl's Jr. Ad: Unlike the debt crisis, your appetite is something we can fix.
The ad suggests two bacon cheese burgers for $5 will do the trick. The ad aired last month in most markets west of the Mississippi.
Brad Haley is chief marketing officer of Carl's Jr.'s parent company CKE Restaurants. He says this is the first time the company has referenced the economy so directly.
Brad Haley: It's just the reality of day-to-day life for our customers and really for the general public.
And other advertisers are catching on. Tim Calkins teaches marketing at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.
Tim Calkins: Making sure advertising resonates is so important. And if your consumers are struggling economically, then the message has to change to address that.
For instance, Xerox ads tout its services for businesses struggling to streamline costs. Ameriprise Financial commercials reference bailouts. And the casual dining chain Chili's is running an ad that starts off with a common experience these days.
Chili's Ad: So I'm interviewing lots of candidates for this position. Why should I choose you?
But sometimes, what people experience during the day is not what they want to hear about when they're trying to unwind at night. Calkins says that makes downturn-themed advertising tricky -- especially in the next couple of months.
Calkins: It is particularly challenging in the holidays because in the holiday time, people really don't want to be reminded of the dismal economy.
Calkins says that puts advertisers in a tough spot. Most of the larger ones take months to plan and produce an ad campaign. That's means they run the risk of locking into a campaign that could be out of touch. Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson says some of the most nimble current events advertising comes not from nationwide chains -- but in low budget, often local commercials.
Robert Thompson: I think advertising's biggest signal to me that we've been in some economic trouble is the quantity of cash for gold advertisements I see.
Cash-gold Ad Montage: Turn your gold into cash fast. Don't mail in your gold to a stranger. Get the most cash for your diamond, gold and silver jewelry.
That nimble low-budget model is turning up in bigger advertising campaigns too. Remember those Carl's Jr. commercials for the bacon cheeseburger? Marketing chief Brad Haley says the chain didn't film anything new, but relied on stock footage of Wall Street and gold bars. He says the company produces about a third of its ads that way.
Haley: That can be turned around quickly so it reflects exactly what people are thinking and talking about.
Sure its current, but Robert Thompson of Syracuse University says the ad worked mostly because it was irreverent.
Thompson: That Carl's Jr. Wall Street ad was almost getting to the point where we're now parodying the idea of using the economic collapse to sell products.
And Thompson says expect to see more ads if this kind if the economy continues to struggle.
I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.