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?