OfficeMax Looks for Another Viral Success

The 'Elf Yourself' Retailer Backs 1-Cent Back-to-School Effort With 11 Webisodes

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- OfficeMax is out to vindicate the much-maligned penny this back-to-school season.
'Dave' tries to pay with pennies.
'Dave' tries to pay with pennies.

Throughout August, the supplies retailer will be promoting a selection of items for one cent, including Elmer's Glue, crayons and rulers, as well as offering buy-one-get-one-for-a-penny deals.

Good luck with that
Advertising for the effort takes a humorous twist. A series of 11 videos show "Dave" around New York as he attempts to buy everything from a steak dinner to a used car to a diamond engagement ring with pennies. Inevitably he's told that his money won't be accepted -- one particularly irate hot dog vendor throws the pennies in the trash -- and that's where OfficeMax comes in with its penny products.

"The economy prompted everything. It's no secret that we're in the tank," said Bob Thacker, senior VP-marketing. "But the penny has been abandoned by everybody. Even the people on the street won't take a penny. We explored that and said, 'Let's really embrace the penny.'"

When developing the back-to-school concept with lead agency Escape Pod, Chicago, the retailer decided it could not ignore the state of the economy. But it also didn't want to approach the issue too seriously. "If you can make people smile through their pain, I think you actually have a better chance of connecting with them than if you remind them that they're in misery," Mr. Thacker said.

Online advertising for the YouTube spots will begin July 28, and two or three of the most popular videos will be edited into 30-second commercials. The commercials will begin airing on Aug. 4, along with radio spots. On Aug. 5, the Penny Event at Mall of America will give away 2 million pennies to anyone willing to take them.

"My mantra is don't make ads, make news," said Mr. Thacker. That's something the retailer, which last year created "Elf Yourself," has experience with. "'Elf Yourself' was breakthrough for us and the industry. We learned a great deal from it and are taking our lessons back to school."

Staples goes for 'Easy'
Rival Staples is also addressing the economy with a sense of humor, using its familiar "Easy" button. The 15-second commercials, created by McCann Erickson, New York, focus on rising costs at the gas pump and grocery store. In "Gas," a woman is told it will cost $92.50 to fill her tank. She whips out her Easy button expecting a discount only to be told by the annoyed attendant that it's still $92.50. The spots launch nationally on Sunday.

"We really were looking for something that was going to touch on where Americans are today. Everybody is very anxious about the economy, and we saw it as an opportunity to play off that," said Christine Mallon, VP-retail marketing at Staples. "We are talking a lot more about price this year. Last year we talked about assortment and then price."

Staples said it is spending more than $25 million on the campaign, although it declined to say how that compares to last year. According to TNS Media Intelligence, Staples spent $118 million last year on measured media. By comparison, OfficeMax spent just $29.4 million on measured media last year. Mr. Thacker declined to discuss the budget for the campaign, joking, "Our theme is power to the penny, and it's true on every level, including our budget. We're making pennies do the work of dollars."
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