- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000

These are a few of our favorite things?

If TV commercials are any gauge of our culture, here's what is dear to our hearts these days:

Americans love restaurants, cars, movies, phone calls, medicine, investments and credit cards in that order.

That's what TV advertisers think, anyway. These are the top categories where they spent their money last year and they spent a bundle.

Between network, cable and syndicated TV shows, these advertisers shelled out $45 billion to persuade Americans that their products were among life's essentials.

National restaurant chains, motion pictures groups, automakers, long-distance telephone services, pharmaceutical firms and investment brokers were the kingpins of the marketplace, according to new figures from Competitive Media Marketing, an industry analyst.

Though we can survive without many of these goodies, there would be a noticeable gap in our popular culture if those singing, thumping, caterwauling commercials suddenly disappeared.

The icons of advertising are pervasive indeed. Studies have revealed in past years, for example, that we recognize characters like Proctor & Gamble's "Mr. Clean" more than our own presidents.

Overall, it is lush depictions of melting cheese and sizzling beef that have become stars in their own right lately.

Restaurants spent almost $3 billion on those little TV spots which take a manipulative but mouthwatering foray into the menus of Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell and McDonald's, which led the way in advertising last year.

And it's no coincidence that prescription medicines like Viagra, Claritin and Paxil have suddenly entered the public discourse. Pharmaceutical makers spent $907 million pushing their pills in 1999, a 48 percent leap in spending from the previous year.

What else do the advertisers think we covet?

Using credit cards, for one thing. The Visa and MasterCard crowd spent $643 million last year on the allure of "plastic." The category was 11th on the list.

After that, we like cereal, Asian-built trucks, furniture, soft drinks, home electronics, clothes, candy and mints, pain remedies and the Internet.

Rounding out the list of 25 categories are European autos, beer and ale, computer games and software, home projects, and finally shampoos and hair rinses.

After years in the limelight, a few familiar brands have retreated to the shadows. General Motors, Campbell Soup, Heinz and Mattel are among those advertisers which don't spend like they used to. GMC, in fact, had a 42 percent drop in its advertising expenditures last year.

Products also have their ups and downs in TV advertising.

We may have dream kitchens, but we don't use them much, apparently. We see fewer commercials about cooking ingredients like cake mixes, seasonings, condiments. They had the greatest "decay in spending" among advertisers down over 25 percent in the past five years.

Hair styling doesn't seem to be a do-it-yourself thing anymore either. Shampoo and conditioner commercials have dropped by over 20 percent since 1995. Household cleaners, clothes, beverages and prepared foods like peanut butter and pasta are also on the downslide.

But hope never dies.

Proctor & Gamble is intent on reinventing advertising altogether, with a retro spin. They call it "performance advertising."

Earlier this month, P&G; sent nine clandestine theatrical troupes into Canadian and Argentinian stores as an experiment. The performers masqueraded as shoppers, then suddenly broke into a song and dance routine that advertised Cheer detergent.

The reception has been good. A matching TV campaign will soon follow, and possibly, a version for American stores.

The customers, P&G; reports, are joining in the show.

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