2,000 Reasons To Hate The Millennium

Marketers are hyping it to a froth--and they've only just begun

When Chicago restaurateur Sonny Dervishi opened his newest eatery a little more than a year ago, he called it Millennium Steakhouse. He can't say for sure if the name attracts business. In fact, it's a bit of a hassle sometimes. Dervishi often must redirect phone callers looking for one of the many other Chicago-area businesses using millennium titles. Even so, Dervishi couldn't resist the marketing gimmick. "It's a catchy name," he says. "It's talked about so much."

That's the understatement of, well, the millennium. It is one of the ironies of business that marketers--who are, after all, paid to make their products stand out--tend to move in herds. Never mind that fin-de-siecle fever is based on nothing but a calendar quirk. Never mind that consumers show clear signs of fatigue. "I'm tired of hearing about the millennium already," says Paulette Karras, a baker in Mesa, Ariz. "In about six months, I'll be sick of it."

Despite that kind of millennium overload, marketers can't seem to resist associating their products with next year's calendar change. In the first two months of 1999 alone, millennium references have cropped up in all kinds of ads, from Merrill Lynch & Co.'s brokerage services to Dodge's Intrepid.

Korbel Champagne Cellars Inc. will spend $25 million both this year and next to promote its bubbly. "They think they can slap millennium on it and make it stick," says trends consultant Gerald Celente, publisher of The Trends Journal, based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "It will be an overhyped fad."

UP FOR GRABS. Still, for most marketers, there's no holding back. McDonald's Corp. will launch millennium-themed TV ads and in-store promotions in the first quarter of this year. R.J. Milano, vice-president for marketing at McDonald's USA, won't release details of the blitz, but promises only "no McMillennium." Others are showing less restraint. Nickelodeon plans to run a series of youth-oriented news shows and documentaries called Nickellenium. Warner Brothers Inc. hopes to cash in selling merchandise bearing its Mil-Looney-Um logo. Miller Brewing Co. is pondering the launch of a Millerennium campaign.

What makes the millennium even more overdone than your average fad is that any marketer, big or small, can get in. Unlike the Olympic Games or the Super Bowl, where the right to unleash official hype costs big bucks, the millennium is a free-for-all, drawing in the small fry as well as the big corporations. Homebuilder Larry Kush dubbed his new development in Scottsdale, Ariz., "Home for the millennium." Budd Goldman, a clock merchant in Mineola, N.Y, says that he has sold more than 1 million millennium clocks that hit zero at the stroke of midnight, Dec. 31.

RIGHT YEAR? Even as they pile on, millennial hypesters face some risks. Saturation is the most obvious. But there's also the dreaded Y2K bug. If serious computer problems hit in 2000, ad campaigns celebrating the era will look silly. Those problems have a handful of marketers sitting the millennial wave out. Many airlines, for example, mindful of alarmists who say Y2K will cause planes to fall out of the sky, are staying away from the theme. Coca-Cola Co. is also taking a pass. Coke officials say the topic is so oversubscribed that there's no way for a brand to stand out. Carnival Corp. reached the same conclusion. "The challenge for all millennium marketers is going to be not getting lost in the shuffle," says Bob Dickenson, president of the Carnival Cruise Lines Div.

But those holdouts will provide the consumer little respite. For each firm standing aside, it seems a dozen are out in full force. And perhaps worst of all for millennium-weary consumers: The hoopla won't end at the stroke of midnight next New Year's Eve. Many companies are subscribing to the theory that the century does not officially turn until 2001. M&M/Mars, a division of Mars Inc., which already runs millennium-themed ads, has more planned but won't discuss them until next year. "We're waiting for the real millennium," a spokeswoman says. One consolation: We should get 1,000 years of respite before the next bout of millennium fever.