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Media Zone: Recession Insurance: How Much Would You Pay?

1 Sep, 2008 By: Response Contributor Response

Whether our economy is technically in recession is moot. Consumers are behaving with recessionary caution — tightening their belts and polling with gloom. Four-dollar-per-gallon gas keeps casual shoppers on their couches with front-row views of their declining home values.

 Timothy R. Hawthorne
Timothy R. Hawthorne

Companies are in a funk too. Forrester claims that more than three-quarters of global marketing executives expect their ad budgets to stagnate or shrink by around 3 percent. So why is it that, from my desk, I see silver linings in darkening skies?

The answer is simple: direct response television.

DRTV is structurally well-suited to thrive during difficult times. Media billings prove it. During the two notable recessions our nation has suffered during the past 20 years, DRTV billings were robust. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) claims DRTV grew roughly 10 percent during the early-90s recession, and long-form billings rose six consecutive quarters during this decade's dot-com bust.


Even as trade publications project ad budget cutbacks, Response keeps reporting record DRTV billings. Should direct response marketers draw confidence from history's tendency to repeat itself? Of course. But there are very good reasons for optimism:

  • 1. The Killer Deal. When times get tight, consumers start comparison shopping. They track down the best deals, clip coupons and wait for discounted offers. With offers prominently repeated during each call to action, DRTV always speaks the language nervous buyers want to hear. Free premiums and discounts are popular any time; in a troubled economy, they're compelling.
  • 2. Bargain Media. It's not just consumers who love finding deals — advertisers welcome them also. For the cost of 30 seconds in prime time, DRTV marketers can fund dozens of airings across a broad range of stations. More reassuring, DRTV media buyers actually encourage ad planners to scale back, by axing any media that doesn't perform.
  • 3. Solving Problems Is a Household Necessity. People's first response to recessions is to sacrifice luxuries in favor of items perceived as necessities. At the grocer, this means replacing filet mignon and asparagus tips with peanut butter and pasta. For lifestyle decisions, it means eating out less to fill up the gas tank. General advertising suffers in recessionary times because it's tough to position wine coolers as staples. You might miss them, but you don't need them. DRTV, of course, routinely positions products as solutions to everyday problems. For consumers that face these dramatized troubles, the products that solve them become necessities.


Tough times are the best times to win over converts. Given skyrocketing gas prices, DRTV agencies should be all over carmakers to devote some half-hours to extolling the cost benefits of fuel-efficient vehicles. Big-box wholesalers could enjoy a similarly striking impact by illustrating the breadth of their merchandise and the depth of their "stores full of savings" — at precisely the moment their targets need price breaks.

Successful companies always insure themselves against possible damages that untold contingencies cause. For predictable and cyclical recessions, the best policy may be simple: tried-and-true DRTV.

Timothy R. Hawthorne is founder, chairman and executive creative director of Hawthorne Direct, a full-service DRTV, print, mail and digital ad agency founded in 1986. A 34-year television producer/writer/director, Hawthorne is a cum laude Harvard graduate.

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