The new campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, for the troubled retailer is directed by the perpetually angry cine auteur Spike Lee, but not so's you'd notice. The ads are pleasant and reasonably charming and as devoid of edginess as can be. No goofy Mars characters. No ethnic tension. No moral conflict. No funk-in short, none of the attitude we've come to associate with a Spike Lee joint.
All of which is fine. The spots are in no way compromised by their lack of auteurial signature. What they are compromised by is their conspicuous lack of salesmanship.
The latest theme is "The stuff of life," the gentle reminder of how Kmart merchandise fits into your average-American lifestyle. And, indeed, the spots are chock full of warm, genuine-looking evidence of the premise: a makeshift tent made with a (presumed) Kmart bed sheet draped over some (presumed) Kmart chairs and the remark, from a mom, "They call it a living room. It's more like a theme park."
It's a tiny, observant truth. Here's another: "Every carpet stain tells a story"-this from a dad whose toddler has tried to use the family sheep dog as a table.
Other bits of folksy wisdom: "The best thing about family is it's yours. The worst thing: It's yours." And, "You can't have too many juice boxes. Ever." Each platitude is illustrated by a brief tableau of real home life, most shot in the same sunny, tastefully decorated living room. All of the furnishings, we'd have to assume, are from Kmart-a revelation if true. The place, along with the vast demographic variety of well-dressed people populating it, looks fabulous.
But is it true? If this stuff-the oriental-print rugs, the hip paint colors, the nice boxer shorts-is all available at Kmart, nobody ever bothers to say so. If the idea is to duplicate Target's success in peddling cheap chic, this campaign never makes the connection. Nobody ever says, or even implies, "Did you realize Kmart could be so stylish?"
Of course, there is also the opposite problem: the striking paucity of sectional sofas with gold-tone metal trim. If this campaign is about "real life," and it is aimed at Kmart's core audience, the lifestyles portrayed will seem not so much sophisticated as otherworldly. This may be real life in Soho, or Highland Park, but it sure ain't in Brownsville and Queens. For "The stuff of life" to resonate, if the life doesn't look familiar, at least the stuff must look desirable.
Which gets to the third bizarrely missing element: brand names. Where are the brand names? As we've observed before, familiar brands have even more impact in third-party advertising than their own. What Kmart seems about to do here, but stops inexplicably short of, is to show off its famous-name solutions to little lifestyle moments that come up. But no. Even Martha Stewart goes unmentioned.
Never mind that a decade's worth of campaigns have stubbornly refused to mention Kmart's single advantage vis-a-vis Wal-Mart (i.e., there's one around the corner). It's just hard to understand why a company in such dire straits would start any sort of advertising conversation without trying to close the sale. Sure, they're trying to write a new chapter in retail history, but they'd do well to remember:
The last chapter was 11.