Peel back pomposity to find the treasure

By Published on .

Marketer: Toys "R" Us
Agency: Leo Burnett USA, Chicago
Rating: Two and a half stars

Every now and then you read about some lucky stiff who has bought a kitschy painting at a flea market, only to discover that layered beneath the decorator-colored portrait of the bittersweet clown is a genuine Vermeer. It doesn't go with the sofa, but it's worth $70 million.

Because, at rummage sales and in life, sometimes you can hold a thing in your hands and not really know what you have.

Consider as well the new Toys "R" Us commercials from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago (yes, it's Columbus Day, so Christmas is just around the corner). The agency believes it has crafted two discrete campaigns, one for adults and one, according to the press release, "targeted directly at kids."

The so-called adult work consists of two very dramatic--i.e., excessive--paeans to the childish imagination. Under the unbearably lush strains of high-volume choral music, we see an idealized neighborhood of homes with kids everywhere, happily, unselfconsciously in play.

See them run, aglow in their innocence! One has a toy glider, which he zooms around with, imagining himself to be a pilot. Meantime, the music gathers, the chorus surges, swells, soars.

And it's, like, could someone turn that down?

Its choral din is supposed to convey welling emotion, but it is more like a boil about ready to pop. The whole cinematic package is far too much to take, including the dreamy footage and the overwrought copy. "Of all the journeys you'll take your kids on, just remember: flights of fancy could be the most important."

The attempt is to find Truth, with a capital T, but really the thing rings loudly false. Yes, there is nothing more precious than children's imaginations--but this is scarcely the province of Toys "R" Us. Or, at least, no more than it is the province of a scrap of wood, or an empty corrugated carton. The very beauty of such fanciful play is that it doesn't need manufactured goods to be unleashed.

To connect its client with splendid juvenile fantasy, Burnett inadvertently invites us to consider whether Toys "R" Us sells actually quite the opposite: pre-fab expressions of somebody else's imagination, encouraging passive, unimaginative play.

But wait. The same agency has crafted two other spots, aimed at kids themselves. One is about a little girl being taken to Toys "R" Us for her reward upon finally being toilet trained. "I pooped on the potty!" she tells everyone. A second shows kids out shopping with Dad, and repeatedly being shooed away from the merchandise. "That's not a toy!" the unnerved Dad keeps saying. So finally he takes them to a Toys "R" Us.

"OK," he says, with shelves full of kids stuff arrayed before them, "those are toys."

The question is, why are these spots on Saturday-morning cartoon shows? Not only don't they do what kid-targeted toy commercials need to do--i.e., show lots and lots of toys--they will be entirely unappreciated by children for their lovely depictions of small but vivid human truths.

As overblown and pretentious as the so-called "adult" campaign is, so are these spots modest and funny and sweet. It's these that get to the true relationship between Toys "R" Us and the consumer. It's these that generate genuine emotion. Like the McDonald's vignettes Burnett once crafted so beautifully, these are slender slices of magic.

Peel away the thick layers of pompous kitsch that obscure them, and behold the treasures that await.

Copyright October 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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