Ever since we read that the gross national product fell at a rate of around 5 percent during the final quarter of 1981, we've been paying attention to advertising. Possibly we're overreacting, but we think we've found a connection. Fewer advertisements these days seem to be selling a product. More seem to be selling an attitude - a posture.
The new breed of ad -- the new breed of advertiser -- can be studied in purest form among the states trying to woo industry within their boundaries. A full-page example by Alabama carries the headline: ''Our attitude is priceless.'' Maryland competes with a headline that promises ''A solidly pro-business attitude,'' while displaying a perfectly gorgeous carrot the full length of the page to symbolize its powers of persuasion. Elsewhere the state of Virginia sings self-praise of its ''want-to-work'' attitude.
One no longer sells the product-in-hand, it appears; one sells the rolled-up sleeve. Very vaguely.
An elaborate campaign is being conducted by Sperry, untainted by any vulgar mention of product. The motto reads: ''We understand how important it is to listen.'' A recent ad devoted nine out of 11 inches in a double-page spread to a superb photograph of a light at the end of a tunnel. Nearly one page consisted of the most expensive solid blackness. At the bottom, in about an inch and a half of type, Sperry philosophized: ''Few, we've found, see as far or as clearly as those who listen well. . . . Ultimately, good listeners attune themselves more closely to where the world is going.''
Could anything be less gross -- less product?
Everything is getting to look more and more like an institutional ad even when it isn't. The oil companies meditate at length on how they fit, alongside us other little guys, in the American Dream. Chemical companies conclude that they are really in the clean-air and clean-water business. AMF, abstracting its bicycles, sailboats, and golf clubs, declares it's in the ''weekend'' business. Ma Bell assures us she's in the ''knowledge'' business. Does she really know about our latest bill?
Ma might just as well claim she's in the ''listening'' business, leaving the ''knowledge'' business to Sperry, which, after all, manufactures computers -- if only it weren't bad form to mention that under the new rules of the game.
Once you get away from the product, the sky's the limit. Even the US Postal Service is tired of selling its familiar old staple: the mail carrier who slogs through snow and sleet and everything else the winter of '82 can conjure up. ''Explore the desert at the Post Office,'' reads the headline in a current full-page ad, risking all sorts of double interpretations from those customers still chafing over the loss of Saturday services. An absolutely smashing picture of a cactus occupies the bottom three-quarters of the page. There is about five inches worth of sky above the cactus -- we are trying to be quite precise about this -- running from lavender to deep blue and containing a moon less than one-quarter of an inch in diameter. The object is to announce four commemorative stamps of desert plants, proving, presumably, that the post office is really in the art business.
Part of the problem is that anybody rich enough to float a two-page color spread is so big, so conglomerated that who knows what is being done, way down there on the production line? But there may be a larger confusion here. In a cartoon in the New Yorker, where a number of these ads have appeared, an introduction is being performed at corporate heights. A vice-president -- at least -- explains to the strangers: ''Roberts, here, is our man in charge of periodically reviewing who we are.''
Something like this seems to be acted out in these ads so stubbornly refusing to identify themselves by product.
We'll take it as our own signal of economic recovery when everybody stops asking themselves, ''Who am I?'' (with logo included), and starts pushing the goods across the counter. We appreciate a proper attitude as much as anybody. But if you offer us a choice between bread ''made with a little bit of love'' and bread made with lots of whole wheat and molasses and the rest of the Right Stuff, we'll go with the product every time.