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Advertisers Count On Consumers For Answers Madison Avenue Is Leaning Heavily On The Question Mark

The question mark is getting a workout on Madison Avenue.

“What do you need most?” a computer software company asks in a new advertising campaign.

“Where do you want to go today?” asks an advertiser that links computer users to the Internet. “Has it changed your life yet?” a computer maker had been asking until recently.

But high-tech companies aren’t the only businesses embracing advertising themes that pose questions.

“Isn’t it time for a real car?” says the new advertising campaign from General Motors Corp.’s Buick division. “Who is he sleeping with?” Westin Hotels & Resorts asks in its new ads.

Dairy farmers and milk processors are asking “Got milk?” and “Where’s your mustache?” in two separate ad campaigns.

The sponsors have plenty of reasons for posing questions in their ads but generally feel the approach is more engaging than simply asserting something about themselves.

“A question tends to focus your mind,” said Charles Powell, an executive with Dairy Management Inc. that is behind the “Got Milk?” ads which began running in 1993. He said the campaign has helped stabilize milk consumption per capita after years of declines.

Bobby Calder, a professor of marketing and psychology at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said asking a question can spark “a more personal reaction to an ad.”

Once they have a customer’s heart, they figure on getting his business.

The danger is that consumers will be bored by the question and ignore both the sponsor and the message.

“This only makes sense where you believe people are predisposed to immediately react in a thoughtful way to the question. My guess is most high-tech products are not strong enough brands at this point to lead to that kind of reaction,” Calder said.

Compuware Corp., which provides software and computer services to large companies, launched the “What do you need most?” campaign in January.

In one ad, a deep-sea diver rapidly pares his list of essentials to one - oxygen. A desert trekker in another ad quickly moves down a list that starts with sunscreen and ends with water.

“We didn’t want to come off as being arrogant,” said Peter Cohen, the Compuware account manager at the ad agency Arian, Lowe & Travis.

Microsoft Corp., which makes a widely used computer operating system and the technology linking it to the Internet, has been asking “Where do you want to go today?” in its ads since 1994.

The theme “is the summation of the promise of the Microsoft brand,” said Eric Koivisto, advertising director for the company.

He said the question works better than an assertion - like “We take you where you want to go” - because it “puts the consumer at the center” and demonstrates Microsoft’s personal relevance for customers.

But even engaging ad themes grow less compelling over time.

Burger King Corp. long ago moved on from its “Aren’t you hungry?” theme as Wendy’s International Inc. did from its “Where’s the beef?” line that spilled over into politics in the mid-1980s.

Earlier this month, Ford Motor Co. retired the 15-year-old “Have you driven a Ford lately?” theme in favor of “Ford Cars: Built to Last.”

Gerry Donnelly, marketing communications manager for the Ford division, said the old theme was coined in the early 1980s when Ford wanted to draw people into showrooms to demonstrate it had improved the quality of its cars.

He said while the theme is still widely recognized, auto buyers it talked with felt it was “time to move on and time for a change.” They liked the new assertion about Ford’s durability, Donnelly said.

Tags: business

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