Air of authenticity drives Route 66 line

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Advertiser: Kmart Corp.
Agency: Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis
Ad Review Rating: 3 stars

Sometimes advertising discovers and flogs the living daylights out of what Leo Burnett called the product's "inherent drama," trading on something distinctive, something intrinsic, something fundamentally real.

Then there's that other sort of advertising, the sort that, you know, just makes it up. Invents. Fabricates. Pretends.

Screen 1 from the spot

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Not to say, "lies," but, for instance, consider the fascinating campaign from Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, introducing the Route 66 house brand of jeans. The first clue that this stuff is built on, shall we say, artifice, comes in the spots' last words: "Now at Kmart."

As if.

As if this were some established, recognizable, prestige line that--due to the retailer's sudden emergence from the depths of declasse to, basically, Versace, only with a toaster oven section--is now at long last available at Kmart. Yeah, sure.

Look here, Route 66 is available at Kmart and only at Kmart, where you can find it stacked right next to the other fine and stylish garments woven, from space age plastic, in Sri Lanka. But this is what comes of creating a brand from whole cloth. There is no inherent drama, so, by God, you invent some.

Or borrow some.

Marketing a label with no history, no heritage, no image whatsoever (much less the "authenticity" jeans consumers, according to research, so covet), Kmart opted to associate itself with an icon conveniently pre-imbued with a sense of romantic independence.

Apparently, however, James Dean didn't return their calls. So the retailer found, instead, a celebrity highway. Route 66, sung about by Nat King Cole, immortalized by a TV series, it's immersed in more lore than you can shake a stick shift at.

The campaign is "Tales from Route 66." One--shot in oversaturated colors and the styles of the early '60s--recounts an O. Henry-esque urban myth about a jealous cement-truck driver who sees a new convertible in his driveway and a handsome stranger chatting up his wife in the kitchen.

"So," the voice-over tells us, as we watch the scene play out, "he backs up his truck, full load of wet mix right down the chute."

Then we see the wife and the other man walk outside: "Honey," she says, "this is the car dealer. He just dropped off your birthday present! Surprise!" Whoops. Then we hear Nat sing, "Get your kicks on Route 66," and the title card: "Route 66. Jeans. Clothes. It's not Main Street."

A second spot recounts an eerie, "Twilight Zone" kind of legend about a beautiful girl who accepts a ride to a dance and shares a romantic evening with a boy. He doesn't seem to notice her blank stare and vacant monotone, so he is shocked when he calls for her at home and her mama says she's been dead for years.

Yes, dead children. Plus, of course, Kmart's everyday low prices.

Kmart says the campaign "captures the free spirit and adventurous style" of the brand. Wrong. It tries to evoke those qualities, because there is certainly nothing intrinsically free or adventurous about the goods themselves, which are pants.

But that's fine. If garments can embody values, these spots--and the artificial heritage they co-opt--are a pretty damn good fit. They are indeed evocative, rich in texture and mood, and oddly expressive of the very authenticity this brand obviously lacks.

There's really only one thing wrong with these commercials:

They should have been for Levi's.

Copyright August 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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