Glutton for abuse, or marketing genius?

  • Article by: Kara McGuire
  • Star Tribune
  • September 30, 2007 - 3:08 PM

The camera zooms in on Dennis Hopper, dressed in black and standing in a field of flowers next to a single fire-engine-red Eames chair. It's an image that could be right out of the quirky actor's latest off-the-wall film project. But it's an ad designed to get baby boomers to see an Ameriprise financial adviser.

Hopper, who is known for playing a hippie biker in "Easy Rider," a sadistic captor in "Blue Velvet" and a mad bomber in "Speed," has been appearing in Ameriprise commercials for more than a year. In that time, the ads have created a lot of buzz. The satirical newspaper the Onion in May took on the choice of the 71-year-old Hopper as spokesman. There are even parody commercials on YouTube that blast Ameriprise products for being expensive and subpar.

While Ameriprise, which boasts 2.8 million clients and $446 billion in assets as of year-end 2006, certainly did not expect the commercials to be the butt of jokes, they are pleased with the campaign, and launched a new series of ads last month created by Satchi & Satchi and featuring Hopper. This time around, television commercials are accompanied by spots on the Web. Ameriprise has also paired up with National Geographic to create videos of people fulfilling their dreams with the help of an Ameriprise adviser, an effort that they hope will appeal to Generation X as well as to boomers. The company spent $110 million on advertising in 2006, according to the Nielsen Co. Ameriprise said that it's on track to spend about the same or slightly less this year.

Another round of spots starring the iconic actor, photographer and writer will begin their run in early 2008.

Two years ago after it was spun off from American Express, Ameriprise had to build brand recognition among the mass affluent -- Americans who have at least $100,000 in investable assets. The company's initial focus was on baby boomers, naturally.

"Boomers are redefining retirement," Ameriprise Chief Marketing Officer Kim Sharan said. And many in the group, about 78 million strong, are heading toward retirement age without a feasible financial plan.

But advertising to the 50-plus set is a relatively new concept, said Matt Thornhill, president of the marketing research firm the Boomer Project in Richmond, Va.

"For the last 40 years, [advertisers] focused on 18- to 49-year-olds." When people hit age 50, he said, most marketers felt that they no longer counted.

But that's changed, as boomers aged and companies discovered that this demographic spends money -- $2.3 trillion per year on goods and services, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditures Survey.

Nostalgia is so yesterday

Thornhill's research found that boomers don't typically favor ads that use nostalgia to sell something, an approach taken by one of Ameriprise's first campaigns with images of dancing hippies and VW buses. Thornhill said most boomers "are a long way from sitting on the rocking chair on the porch and thinking about the good old days."

Thornhill, who talks to audiences nationwide, says that the Ameriprise ads get mixed reviews. Some people love the spots for Dennis Hopper and his message that dreams don't retire. Others hate Hopper's quirky film career, his finger-pointing, preachy delivery and they don't understand the symbolism of the red chair -- picked because it's the "anti-rocking chair," Ameriprise explained.

Sharan admits that the company didn't go into development for the ads with Hopper as its first choice. But he tested well. Plus "he really embodies this spirit of reinvention and living your dreams," she said, citing Hopper's multiple talents and the unique choices he's made in film roles.

That's not what struck the satirical newspaper the Onion about the choice. "I'm sure that Dennis Hopper wouldn't represent a company that was anything other than a rock of respectability," Diane Rohde wrote in the paper. "When I hear him in those commercials, it's the familiar voice of a coke-dealing, LSD-fueled hippie cowboy biker putting me at ease."

No such thing as bad press

The Ameriprise website received an uptick in hits after the Onion story, Sharan said. She thinks their choice to write about Ameriprise "shows our message is out there. It's resonating, and in some ways is becoming part of our culture."

And, she admits, that at a time when anyone can easily disseminate their opinions through the Web, a company can only do its best to control negative messages and should instead focus on leveraging the Web's viral nature.

Some of the negative publicity is coming from John Haritos, a high-tech equipment salesman who started the websites and after, he says, an American Express adviser put him in some unsuitable products and lost about $20,000 of his money. He created a handful of YouTube videos that splice scenes from the company's TV commercials with critical text.

Web attacks prove popular

"At Ameriprise, they have their own dreams to get you into poor-performing, over-priced VULS [life insurance] and annuities, which mean more money for them [and] less for your retirement," reads a message spliced into one ad before showing an old woman, who presumably invested with Ameriprise, begging for money in the street.

In the year that they've been up, his videos have had roughly 20,000 hits. He said he was surprised that so many people watched them. The Scottsdale, Ariz., resident is thinking about creating some videos to post using this latest round of spots, although he said that "just the other day I was thinking, 'Gee, maybe I'm helping them a little bit by getting their name out.'"

Howard Liszt, retired CEO of Campbell Mithum Esty and a senior fellow in the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, agrees. "Parody is the sincerest form of advertising flattery. When it goes on sites like YouTube ... the scale and the scope of the viral [marketing] is astounding."

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293

Kara McGuire •

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