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Selling Americans On The Virtuous Recession


With layoffs, foreclosures, and scary financial statements arriving in the mail, there's a lot of economic doom and gloom out there. But have you heard anyone recently say something like this?

Mr. STEVE ST. ANGELO (President, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, Inc.): I hope no one gets hurt from this, but I believe once this is all over I think we're going to be a better nation as a result of this.

NORRIS: That's Steve St. Angelo, a top executive with Toyota. Our reporter Martin Kaste interviewed him recently at a Toyota plant in Kentucky. It struck Martin as a gutsy thing to say, but then he started noticing the same sentiment cropping up in advertising. As Martin soon found out, there's a growing effort to sell Americans on the notion of the virtuous recession.

MARTIN KASTE: Some ads just hint at it. Take this one for a $99-a-month cell phone plan.

(Soundbite of Sprint ad)

Mr. DAN HESSE: It's no surprise that people are trying to be smarter with their money these days. I'm Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint, and we have a plan for you.

KASTE: Here, Sprint is just trying to flatter our new-found love of thrift. But Allstate takes things further. The pitch man in one of its ads tells us that Allstate was founded during the Great Depression.

(Soundbite of Allstate ad)

Mr. DENNIS HAYSBERT (Actor): And through the 12 recessions since, they've noticed that after the fears subside, a funny thing happens. People start enjoying the small things in life.

KASTE: School children gaze at a gallery of Depression-era photos, absorbing the lesson of dignified deprivation.

(Soundbite of Allstate ad)

Mr. HAYSBERT: It's back to basics, and the basics are good. Protect them. Put them in good hands.

KASTE: It almost makes you proud to be part of an economic downturn, but it doesn't work on everybody.

Mr. IAN BAKER(ph): I hope it backfires on all of them.

KASTE: Ian Baker is strolling through downtown Seattle with his young daughter. He hasn't lost his job, but he knows plenty of people who are nervous.

Mr. BAKER: There's nothing to romanticize about the Depression. I mean, economic meltdown isn't a positive, no matter how you look at it.

KASTE: It doesn't help that Baker is standing in the shadow of the Washington Mutual Tower. It's one of the places where this crisis started and where thousands are now losing their jobs. But even some of them buy the idea that the meltdown might be good for us. Laura Bateson(ph) is taking a smoke break outside her soon-to-be former place of employment.

Ms. LAURA BATESON (Employee, Washington Mutual): If it lets people take more serious actions with money and their financial responsibility and corporations and their ethics and their standards, then I'm all for it.

KASTE: And that's the feeling that businesses are now trying to harness. Market researcher Lia Knight(ph) says she has several clients who are considering what she calls "transparent messages" - simply put, ads that acknowledge hard times.

Ms. LIA KNIGHT (Market Researcher): What their trying to do is seek the good in what is usually termed with negative terms like "crisis" or "economic downfall."

KASTE: But what the companies don't know yet, she says, and what one client has hired her to find out, is whether Americans are really serious about embracing the thrifty values of the Great Depression. Twenty stories above the streets of downtown Seattle in an office resembling the Genius Bar at an Apple store, ad man Dan Gross predicts a change in tone.

Mr. DAN GROSS (Advertisement Professional): You'll probably see less - we may see less of Paris Hilton.

KASTE: Instead, we'll be treated to pitches that are more what he calls "grounded." To illustrate, he opens his Mac and cues up a new ad for a credit union.

(Soundbite of credit union ad)

Unidentified Announcer: We are a half-million credit union members who are looking out for each other, instead of Wall Street. And we are turning the financial world right side up.

Mr. GROSS: "Turning the financial world right side up." That means something now. I don't think a year ago that would have made quite as much sense, because culturally we all know what that means now.

KASTE: Yes, we do. Or at least we think we do. Right side up, back to basics, as always advertisers are inviting us to project our hopes onto whatever it is they are selling. And right now we're hoping we'll somehow get through all this and be better off for it. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: January 23, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST
We described Laura Bateson as "taking a smoke break outside her soon-to-be former place of employment." She is not a smoker.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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