Monday, June 1, 2009

Can the Depression Raise Our Spirits? Advertisers Think So.

Right: A Depression-era insurance office was depicted in a campaign for Farmers. One of the company’s executives said the point was that “there have been hard times we have weathered together.”

The Depression began with the stock market's unstoppable crash in October, 1929, and economic hard times continued until the U.S. entered WWII. Families struggled to put food on the table, and mothers made dresses out of flowered feed sacks. With so many men out of work with no social safety net to catch them, the only help to be found was in a soup line. People sold apples on the street for a nickel each. They did anything they could just to get by from one day to the next. If you have a parent or grandparent who lived through it, you know the Depression had deep and long-lasting effects on a generation of Americans. My mother, for one, became a saver of everything from rubber bands to newspapers to file drawers filled with obsolete information. In her refrigerator, I once saw a plastic margarine container with a paper note on top reading, "Peas." It contained exactly three left-over peas. She once nearly dove down my garbage disposal to save a tomato slice.

Folks those days had it hard, for sure. But now, the Depression is providing inspiration to recession-stressed Americans, via new TV commercials by Farmers and other insurance companies. The message: We've survived terrible economic times before, and we can do it again.

The message is a welcome upper for all of us who have been beaten over the head endlessly with talk of economic gloom and doom, wars, crime, and everything other negative story the networks and newspapers count as "news."

It does seem odd to be using the Depression as a marketing tool. But the ads are upbeat, nostalgic, and historical. They put that bad old past into the black-and-white realm of experience once removed. These ads encourage us. And these days, I'll take encouragement anywhere I can get it.

By the way, if you want to hear from Depression survivors exactly what it was like, read Studs Terkel's great book, "Hard Times."

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