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To buy, or not to buy -- how do we decide?

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Why do we choose one brand over another?

Marketing experts are convinced that advertising plays a key role. Others would tend to agree. But just how large a role and which advertising techniques are most effective are topics of vigorous debate. This controversy is one reason advertising methods tend to vary widely and recur in cycles over the years. An estimated $62 billion was spent on advertising in 1982, but the search for what motivates consumers to buy has not ended.

''There are lots of reasons'' that people buy products - reasons ''that they'll never admit,'' says Allen Smith, associate professor of marketing at Florida Atlantic University. ''They'll say they bought a Mercedes because of its quality or gas mileage - they may not want to tell you they bought it because it has snob appeal. . . . The bottom line is that advertising is a very hard subject to study. Everyone has his own opinion of what works best.''

Some university marketing experts say the current recession has spawned a resurgence of ads offering special discounts, coupons, and contests. They point to the recent flurry of games and prizes offered by fast-food chains and to car-rental-agency giveaways of everything from TV sets to luggage.

''Advertising campaigns have changed dramatically over the last year or so - there are lots more of the 'buy one and get a coupon toward something' variety geared to the current economy,'' says Roger Blackwell, professor of consumer behavior at Ohio State University. In his view it's all part of a response to ''frontier consumerism,'' in which both spouses in most families work and the only remaining way to make income stretch is to shop for more value for each dollar spent.

''As people grow more careful,'' Dr. Blackwell explains, ''they look for advertising that is more explicit in pinpointing value and communicating useful information about a product.''

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