Attention Kmart: Blue Light ads need to highlight store

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For 25 seconds, heli- copters swoop over downtown Manhattan and New York Harbor. Then, finally, we see her: the Statue of Liberty, brandishing her huge torch of freedom. But wait. The light ... it's blue!

"Attention Kmart shoppers," we hear a voice-over say, followed by a title card: "The Blue Light is back."

As in, Blue Light Special, the cheesy merchandising gimmick that came to stand for all that is declasse in discount retailing. But now the world's-what is it now, 135th?-largest discounter is in such dire straits it is reviving the Blue Light Special, in upgraded form. The plan is to generate some buzz, some sense of fun and at least the illusion of competitive pricing vs. Wal-Mart, which, over the past 20 years, has kicked Kmart's sorry Troy, Mich., ass to Arkansas and back.

Another spot-with Duke Ellington's "I'm beginning to see the light" in the background-shows a jar full of fireflies. Blue fireflies. Another spot is about a kid taking driving lessons. When the light turns from red to ... blue? Driver and instructor alike are bewildered.

Maybe they thought Kmart was already out of business.

All right. We withdraw that remark. It was mean-spirited and unfair. These ads, from TBWA/ Chiat/Day, New York, aren't bad. They're almost excellent-but only almost.

In a way, this campaign is too single-mindedly devoted to the idea that drives it. We here at Ad Review would wager either kidney that the client wanted more than five iterations of the blue-lights-showing-up-where-you-least-expect concept. And we'd wager our other kidney that the agency resisted, on the grounds of not wanting to compromise the purity of the idea by going too noisily "retail."

Clients, of course, are all the time trying to cram too much into 30 seconds, destroying perfectly good commercials with idiotic selling messages and other embarrassing appeals for the viewers' business. But here's the thing: Kmart doesn't especially need to be distributing lilies. It needs to be drawing customers back into its stores, and these ads would have benefited from a little retail noise.

In fact, each spot almost cries for a store scene immediately after the "The Blue Light is Back" title card-a scene that documents a bit of the excitement, and the name-brand merchandise, in the somewhat refitted Kmart stores. Three seconds would have done it. An in-store shot wouldn't have diminished the wit of the commercials; it would have paid off the wit of the commercials, especially for:

1) The millions who have no recollection what a Blue Light Special was, and

2) The many more millions of potential Kmart customers too dim to much appreciate the ingenuity of blue fireflies. Has anyone from the agency been in a Kmart recently to survey the humanity shopping there? The Ad Review staff has, and-though we're fresh out of kidneys to put on the line-our liver, thyroid and medulla oblongata say the customer base, on average, indexes low for Harper's.

Anyway, these spots, in their current form, are too long. They spend too much time establishing the out-of-context blue lights. That time isn't particularly enticing and suspenseful. Mainly it's just annoying. Without the in-store shot to complement the visual joke, these ads really should be 15 seconds. Or 10 seconds.

We don't wish to be too harsh. Flawed as it is, this teaser campaign does some things very well, beginning with the tease. And it does put the Blue Light concept into play, in a style of visual sophistication that, to some degree, will rub off on the brand. Certainly, a few seductive in-store scenes in a few fetching commercials would have in no way been sufficient. What needs to happen is for an actual store experience to trigger some of the value and excitement implied by the ads.

Once in a blue moon, declining brands like Camel cigarettes and Harley-Davidson can be revived. But beware the law of diminishing returns. Shoppers drawn back into Kmart to give it one more chance will arrive skeptical. If they leave that way-in a world with Wal-Mart and Target doing everything right-it will make no difference what color the lights are.

Soon enough, Kmart will just be turning them off forever.

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