Pavlov was only partly right. As Canadian companies prepare to unleash a snow flurry of advertisements over the next five weeks aiming to whip up our latent patriotism during the Olympics, a new survey suggests that nationalist sentiment can be a useful tool but it is not guaranteed to make us salivate over a product.
"It's a way of achieving relevance," said Stephen Graham, the new chief marketing officer of Maple Leaf Foods, a company that plays the patriot game right in its name.
"Canadians have become much more assertive in the last little while," added Peg Hunter, the vice-president of marketing and communications at Home Depot Canada. "We're really quite proud of ourselves on the world stage, and quite honestly, I think people like to feel good about that."
The pair joined three other head marketers this week - John Doig of Scotiabank, Pam Ross of the non-profit Sunnybrook Foundation, and Stuart MacDonald of TripHarbour.ca - at the Toronto offices of Ipsos Reid to discuss the results of a survey commissioned in advance of Advertising Week, which kicks off Monday.
Among its findings, the research by Ipsos Reid and the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA) suggested that combining nationalism with shilling can prove a challenging alchemy.
Respondents were shown six commercials that leverage, to a greater or lesser extent, Canadian pride. Only one - Molson's popular "I Am Canadian" rant - successfully stirred nationalist sentiments from a majority of respondents: 55 per cent said it made them "very proud" to be Canadian.
Others were less successful. A recent Olympic spot by Hudson's Bay noting the twinned histories of the company and this country scored second, with 43 per cent of respondents saying it made them very proud. Two hockey-oriented spots by Tim Hortons took 41 per cent, while Canadian Tire's classic "bicycle story" scored with 40 per cent of respondents.
A further 23 per cent were moved by a spot for Bombardier showing a series of people in foreign lands singing O Canada in their native tongues, while only 22 per cent said a spot by Bell titled "We're all connected," made them very proud to be Canadian.
And here's the kicker: for all that, only 27 per cent said advertising that is obviously Canadian is much more likely to make them buy a particular product or service. Even more noteworthy: when respondents were asked to think of the best advertisement they'd seen in recent years, they named, by a large margin, a brand that is synonymous with American pride: Budweiser beer.
The online survey of 1,071 adults across the country reflects an industry that is trying to find its feet after more than a year of economic upheaval, and buff its image in the process. In a methinks-thou-dost-protest-too-much moment, the ICA's press release trumpeting the survey results sought to portray the advertising industry as one of the keys to ending the recession. Citing research that said 69 per cent of Canadians believe advertising plays an important role in spurring consumer spending, the CEO of the ICA, Gillian Graham, said in a statement, "Advertising plays an integral role in creating consumer demand and, ultimately, moving the economy forward."
Those gathered around the table were hopeful of a recovery, but cautiously so. Ms. Hunter noted that, after changing the emphasis of its marketing efforts from dream kitchens to encouraging wannabe renovators to "paint a room for $99," Home Depot will continue to focus on a value-oriented message.
Maple Leaf's Mr. Graham agreed: "I think everybody feels like the consumer is in a transition phase," he said, "though it won't be a rapid recovery."
For those in the industry, the transition may be less wrenching than expected. Advertising Week will include a number of speeches about new media, including addresses by representatives of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, as well as a keynote by Arianna Huffington. However, consumers don't seem to be in a rush to throw out the old paradigms: 79 per cent of respondents said the advertisement they recalled best from recent years had been on television, while only 5 per cent best recalled an online ad. Furthermore, despite the conventional wisdom that people hate commercials, 61 per cent of TV viewers prefer that method of ad delivery over the option of watching uninterrupted programming that incorporates product placement.
Even better news for the industry: the public's notorious love-hate relationship with advertising may be easing. While 37 per cent of respondents agreed that "most advertising is just painful," 57 per cent said they "love clever advertising," 43 per cent believe people need to be very talented to work in the advertising industry, and 24 per cent said they believe that advertising is a form of art.
At the Ipsos Reid roundtable of marketers, this made for something of a Sally Field "You-like-me-you-really-like-me!" moment.
"I'm really surprised it's so positive. And happy," said Ms. Ross. Why surprised? "Maybe I've been in the business too long," she quipped. "Maybe I'm projecting." She noted that even members of her family still don't understand what she does for a living.
Ms. Hunter nodded knowingly. "My father said, 'Marketing, it's just buying and selling, and people have been doing that for thousands of years, so why do you need a degree in it?'" Still, while Ms. Hunter wasn't surprised people believed advertising was a form of art, "because it is a creative endeavour," she was a little taken aback at the level of appreciation for that endeavour.
But, added Mr. Doig of Scotiabank, "If you can't entertain someone for 30 seconds, you're probably not going to [succeed]"
"In a YouTube world," noted Mr. Graham, "advertising is a part of art, and certainly art and entertainment for young people."