Wal-Mart's Holiday Effort Drops Celebs for More Humorous Touch

But It's No Laughing Matter Unless Aggressive Price Cuts, Promotions Lift Sales

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- In a sharp departure from last year's celebrity-studded holiday campaign, Wal-Mart Stores today kicks off its holiday push -- and swan song from Bernstein Rein -- with a multimedia campaign focused on the lives of a fictional, albeit typical middle-class family.
One of the spots from Bernstein Rein's last work for Wal-Mart.
One of the spots from Bernstein Rein's last work for Wal-Mart.

With the theme "Be Bright," the series of 17 TV ads focuses on holiday traditions such as the holiday family photo and the Thanksgiving Day nap within the lives and inside the homes of an extended family of 10.

Standing out amid the characters is the curmudgeonly patriarch of the family, Dick, constantly harping on the expense of everything, from a flat-screen TV ("Did you spend my grandkids college fund on this?") to the seemingly endless dishes of food at the family table on Thanksgiving Day ("What are we the Rockefellers? I'm going to have to come out of retirement to pay for all this.") Family members enjoy correcting the grumpy character with variations on the phrase "Relax, it's from Wal-Mart."

'Like mini sitcoms'
"This is completely different than anything we've done for them before," Steve Bernstein, the agency's chief operating officer, said in a statement. "They're self-contained episodes, like mini sitcoms, and -- in a first for Wal-Mart -- use humor." Jason Reitman, director of "Thank You for Smoking," directed all the spots, which run through January.

Last year's "Home for the Holidays" campaign from Bernstein Rein featured celebrities from Beyonce Knowles to Martina McBride to Queen Latifah.

As Wal-Mart enters the critical holiday season, the stakes are high. Already, CEO Lee Scott, in his most recent meeting with analysts, said the retailer would rely on aggressive price cutting and promotions. Wal-Mart is resurrecting the "rollback man" and lowering prices on 100 toys and games to drive sales during the holiday season.

Wall Street analysts and investors are also closely watching who has the advantage in the annual clash between Wal-Mart and Target Stores, with many predicting a redux of last year when in November Wal-Mart -- thanks to door-busting sales and an early ad campaign kick off -- beat its trendier rival until Wal-Mart lost ground in December as Target's same-store sales jumped to 4.7%, compared to 2.2% at Wal-Mart.

Needs to reverse sales trend
This year, Wal-Mart needs desperately to turn the tide of soft same-store sales that have plagued it in recent months. In September, same-store sales logged in at a sluggish 1.3%, compared to 6.7% at Target. In October, sales grew a lackluster 0.5%, the retailer's worst monthly showing since 2000.

The slower growth comes as Wal-Mart plans to scale back expansion plans and new-store openings in 2007. Mr. Scott has also expressed skepticism about the chain's foray into more fashionable apparel lines, such as its house brand George.

Although the holiday spots focus on price in a roundabout way, none are overly promotional. For instance, one focuses entirely on the matriarch, Gloria, and her daughter gushing over the retailer's first-ever celebrity-inspired line, Csquared. In partnership with Colin Cowie, the wedding planner and lifestyle guru of the stars, Wal-Mart has rolled out the line fully in only 1,200 stores, with a partial collection in an additional 2,200 stores.

Effort will be closely watched
Csquared, which is in part Wal-Mart's belated answer to Target's designer-inspired Michael Graves housewares, will be closely watched this holiday season to see whether the Wal-Mart shopper will pay more for upscale products, which include everything from metal ice pitchers for $17.92 to modern-designed martini sets for $34.76, according to Walmart.com.

In 2004, Mr. Cowie joined up with department-store chain J.C. Penney to help the retailer launch a new wedding registry and tableware line, but the retailer said they parted ways this June.

In August, Wal-Mart ended its 32-year agency-of-record relationship with Kansas City, Mo.-based Bernstein Rein, whose contract ends Jan. 31. After a lengthy review, Wal-Mart awarded its $580 million creative and media-buying account to Interpublic Group of Cos.' DraftFCB and Aegis Group's Carat.
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