Ad Campaigns Reflect Tenor Of The Times

The glitzy '80s are gone, Americans are bracing for hard times and Madison Avenue has caught on.

Call it the marketing of anxiety:

-- ``New York Life is large, conservative and dull. Reassuring in times like these, isn't it?'' - ad for New York Life Insurance Co.

-- ``The Future: Can we really get there from here?'' - ad for Novell Computing.

-- ``The possibility that you may not be able to afford to send your child to college is difficult to accept.'' - ad for New England Mutual Life Insurance Co.

-- ``Citicorp: Because Americans want to succeed, not just survive.'' - ad for the nation's biggest banking company.

In the heady years of the mid-'80s, advertising campaigns urged Americans to reach for all the gusto they could afford. Merrill Lynch symbolized this era with its ads about being ``Bullish on America.''

Now, with the economy slowing, Merrill Lynch has taken a different tone. Its ads now seek to spur investors with the warning that the average 50-year-old is ``woefully unprepared'' for the future, with only $2,300 in savings.

Since mid-1989, marketing analysts have increasingly detected ``a real change in overall orientation toward spending and conspicuous consumption,'' said Peter Kim, senior vice president for the J. Walter Thompson ad agency in New York.

``The kind of advertising you are observing will probably become increasingly more pervasive,'' Kim said. ``We are going back and reassessing all our advertising and asking whether the tone is consistent with the new consumer climate, the greater apprehension, this greater angst in the consumer marketplace.''

The ad industry's acknowledgment of America's growing anxiety ``sure is speaking to me,'' said Bruce Charette, who lost his job as a securities trader for Drexel Burnham Lambert when the Wall Street investment bank collapsed last year.

Charette found work at a Manhattan financial-consulting company, but swallowed a $15,000 pay cut.

Market researchers say consumer confidence is at its lowest point since the 1982 recession.

Marketing analysts predict the 1990s will see a resurgence of stores catering to a ``mid-level value'' position offering both quality and service at a competitive price, a niche once personified by Sears, Roebuck and Co.