Long-Awaited Wal-Mart Ads Are Obvious ... Yet Brilliant

Martin Agency Gets a Strong Start

By Published on .

We will never know what DraftFCB, Chicago, would have come up with for Wal-Mart were it not for the Great Conflict-of-Interest Fiasco of 2006.

We do know that DraftFCB had too cozy a relationship with a Wal-Mart marketing executive and lost the business before it could even get started. We also know that the account wound up at the Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., a shop famed for its print work but more recently heralded for its Geico cavemen.

That campaign is so original and funny that it verges on too good. The central joke is that saving money with Geico is "so easy a caveman could do it." But the concept, the performances and the writing are so deft, so irresistible, so perfect, that viewers could forget advertising is taking place and overlook the sell altogether.

Well, here's something else we know: There's zero chance of that happening this time.

In its debut for the world's largest retailer, Martin has come up with a brilliant strategy -- converting the chain's promise of lowest prices from a vague smiley face to concrete terms -- but surely nothing to distract you from the selling premise.

That's because Martin essentially filmed the selling premise, which is so easy a caveman could do it.

Possibly better.

For example, in an otherwise lovely spot about a young family of six piling into the minivan for a long trip to Florida -- a spot shot in a glancing, home-video style realistic enough to capture bored kids tormenting one another -- the story preposterously begins in a Wal-Mart parking lot and can't resist a lingering view of Wal-Mart shopping bags and a passing Wal-Mart 18-wheeler.

OK, OK. Wal-Mart. Got it.

Anyway, the family stops at motels and tourist traps, finally arriving in Orlando (where presumably they will forsake Disney and head for Wal-Mart World). But then comes the title card to explain what you've seen: "Wal-Mart saves the average family $2,500 a year. What will you do with your savings?"

Wow. By pinching pennies on toothpaste and overalls and azalea bushes and wrench sets and beef jerky for a year, you can take the family on vacation? That's a pretty impressive proposition -- based on an economic-impact study from Global Insight. So, yeah, the employees are exploited and the vendors' employees are really, really exploited, but think of the windfall! Found money!

Then the new slogan to hammer the idea home: "Save money. Live better."

You wouldn't think anybody would have to spell out the benefit of having more money, yet it's an unexpectedly potent brand promise. Accrued savings is a concept we don't recall having seen before -- certainly not in the retail category.

A second (maddeningly flawed) spot is about a dad who surprises his young son with a shiny, red used car. The acting is bad. The copy is bad. The direction is bad. It's not so much a slice of life as a live-action Norman Rockwell painting. You don't know whether to coo "Ahhh" or gag. But the point is made. You save enough shopping at Wal-Mart to buy a freakin' car.

How ironic. Martin wound up with this account partly because Wal-Mart's since-fired marketing chief took a less-than-arm's-length spin in Howard Draft's shiny car. That wound up costing DraftFCB a hell of a lot more than $2,500. But for the foreseeable future, Martin and Wal-Mart are sure to live much, much better.

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