Attack of the Shack

When word hit that RadioShack was unofficially changing its name to “The Shack,” it was like bloggers, tweeters and comedians everywhere had received manna from heaven. At a time when no one could take another tabloid revelation about Jon or Kate, and news of the economy was still pretty grim, there was suddenly a delicious new target. The put-downs were brutal.

And I agreed. How embarrassing of them to try to become hip and/or sexy overnight! Wasn’t this the retail equivalent of that very special moment on Family Matters when Steve Urkel tried to suppress his nerd genes and bring out his cool genes by becoming Stefan Urquelle? In the end, the girls saw right through it, and wanted good old Steve back.

On the other hand, when was the last time people talked at all about RadioShack? And it’s understandable that the new agency, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, would start with the name. Granted, there’s not much to work with here. Yes, the word “Shack” is problematic, suggesting screen doors, flip-flops and/or shagging (in the British sense), or an ironic association with the 1950s. You don’t want to buy elaborate tech devices from a shack unless you’re a character in a Judd Apatow movie and your crush works there.

But you have to admit that “Radio” is even more of a loser. It sets the place squarely in the past. It’s like being called Victrola Junction, Gramophone Alley or Telegraphy Barn.

For me, however, the bigger problem than the name was the in-store situation — an alienating experience captured perfectly in a 2007 story in The Onion titled, “Even CEO Can’t Figure Out How RadioShack Still In Business.”

I used to cheap out and buy RadioShack phones for my landline, until I realized they tended to die after about three months. Also, even if there were only one other customer in my neighborhood store, which is teeny but convenient, the wait was ridiculous. Even with the most basic stuff, like batteries or cables, the guy had to go into the basement looking for stock — and seemed to get stuck in Bratislava.

Obviously, you can’t solve those kinds of problems with a name change and ads. In this economy, the best (and perhaps only) advertising is a great product and great service.

But when I saw Butler, Shine’s first work for the chain, I had to admit it was good. The 15-second spots are nicely designed, varied and amusing, but also attention-getting. They seem less like traditional commercials and more like digital interstitials popping up on the TV screen — something new in my living room.

The first two-backed by indie music, with the title card saying “Our friends call us The Shack” — look great, with more modern colors (apple green, brown, aqua, gray) compared to the old, Reagan-esque red-and-black combo. No attempt is made to change the red-and-black logo when the store is shown, which seems honest.

But the message is a bit awkward. “What friends?” is the obvious response. The brand’s Facebook page, plaintively, has only 1,800 fans, and they seem to be employees, mostly.

But the beauty part was the quickness. The spots don’t take themselves too seriously or work too hard to build up a recurring narrative or theme. Instead, they merely show the super-techy, brand-name merchandise — the latest phones from T-Mobile, Samsung, etc., digital cameras and the Apple iPod touch. So, you know the stuff will work (hopefully).

My favorite spot, “The Office,” debuted last week. A typical mid-management type — bald, short-sleeve shirt, earphones — is sitting in his cubicle, singing “I Think We’re Alone Now,” the Tommy James and the Shondells number covered by Tiffany, at the top of his lungs. He’s vaguely on key, but messes up the “put your arms around me” part, the way any semi-soused karaoker would. Someone holds a Samsung phone, with its video camera recording the scene, over the frame. And then a card pops up with the phrase, “The Shack doesn’t always have time to get the camcorder.”

“Jump Rope” is also good. It’s an animated version of two girls playing double Dutch — with wonderful, realistic sound — and the jumper in the middle is a Samsung phone (the $29.99 Exclaim). It’s clever and viscerally engaging. It sets up a cool combination of old-timey, low-tech fun (and hand-drawn art) with the latest phone.

I’m not sure the renaming will turn out to be a “Tarjay” situ-ay. Shoppers adopted that nickname for Target because they loved the brand, and wanted to be in on the joke of getting stylish stuff that’s inexpensive. More important, this new work communicates what it should: that the chain’s new focus is on brand-name tech devices that people want. The Shack part might just turn out to be a red herring — to get people to think differently about what the red R in the circle really stands for.

Nielsen Business Media