Penney dreadful campaign doesn't make fashion sense

By Published on .

Marketer: J.C. Penney Co.
Agency: DDB Worldwide, Chicago
Ad review rating: One and a half stars

All right, let's start with the shirt. To promote its new advertising campaign in the media, J.C. Penney Co. sent out black T-shirts, manufactured in scenic El Salvador, with its new tagline, "it'sallinside,'' printed on the front and the Penney's logo on the back.

As if.

As if anyone would be seen in public in such a thing. As if Penney's logo, by sheer corporate will, is somehow going to be transformed from the very quintessence of declasse to a badge of hipness. While The Gap may have enough cachet to persuade its customers to be walking billboards, J.C. Penney never will.

May we repeat that? N-e-v-e-r w-i-l-l. Among the chains with a stronger claim to fashionability are Arthur Treacher's Fish 'n' Chips, Mail Boxes Etc. and Muffler King.

Yet this notion of a brand suddenly imbued with cutting-edge coolness underlies the desperate, and desperately ill-conceived, campaign from DDB Worldwide, Chicago. The same Salvadoran T-shirts show up in the commercials, along with a confusing assortment of special effects, lifestyle appeals and supposed psychographic targeting.

Consider the lifestyle spot. It's supposed to be a cute vignette about expectant parents on the way to the . . . airport. Surprise! She's not pregnant! They're headed to pick up an adopted child! Although she seems to be wearing her pajamas! Don't ask us why!

The whole thing is a jumbled mess. The commercial is populated with understandably bad actors (SAG strike) and a crowd of inexplicably J.C. Penney T-shirted helpers outfitting the new parents' home with baby gear--you know, the way J.C. Penney employees always do. Are they serious?

"We believe that these ads represent the spirit and enthusiasm of today's independent-thinking and savvy shoppers who will appreciate the assortment, style, quality and convenience of J.C. Penney,'' says a press-release quotation attrib- uted to, but likely never uttered by, DDB Chairman-CEO Keith Reinhard.

Well, what could he really say? Could he say that Penney's business is heading nowhere and this was the best the agency could do? That the latest in a series of attempts to equate Penney's with "style'' is as hapless as all the previous ones? That the only interesting question raised by the campaign is whether the model in the introductory spot is the gorgeous Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, or just a dead ringer? (Answer: B).

That spot shows the model striding through the city looking confident and babe-o-licious in a magically changing assortment of Penney's garments. Every time she spins, or is passed by a bus or goes behind a pole, a different outfit materializes. The effect is a bit rougher than it should be, considering the digital state of the art, but the clothes look OK.

Of course they look OK. This woman would look good in a drop cloth. What they don't look is spectacular.

Whereas such retailers as Target and Ikea have figured out that "low-priced'' doesn't have to mean "crappy looking,'' Penney's has been slow to develop taste. Rather than stuffing 10 adequate outfits into a single spot, with too little time for any single one to make an impact, why not choose a few surprising highlights and let the viewer be wowed by their stunning non-Penneyness?

The ostensible explanation for the Big Variety approach is the research, which reveals that "today's independent woman'' wants to express herself by defining her own fashion. Now there's a watershed consumer insight. See? "It'sallinside'' means it's what's inside that counts--so maybe it doesn't matter that your T-shirt has a J.C. Penney logo on it.

It'sallsobizarre--not least of which is the pronouncement issued in that same press release, and we hope you're sitting down for this one: "The days when fashion can dictate what women wear are over.''

That, needless to say, is the most ludicrous example of wishful thinking since Neville Chamberlain got back from Germany. But, we'll concede this: if the statement ever comes true, J.C. Penney is extremely well-positioned for the future.

Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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