JC Penney’s Bland ‘Breakfast’

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Naughty, naughty viral video. OK, I’ve said it — I’ve brought up the big unmentionable, the monster in the closet causing the JC Penney PR machine to go apoplectic.

You might recall the minor scandal of a few weeks back when the production company Epoch Films submitted a never-aired JC Penney commercial, “Speed Dressing,” to the Cannes ad festival. The trouble started when it went on to win a bronze Lion.

The spot offered a fresh take on teen sexuality. Two high-school kids, a male and female, are shown separately, in the privacy of their rooms, practicing dressing and undressing as if for a military drill. We don’t discover why until the delightful payoff, when they tell the young woman’s mom, as they disappear into the basement, that they’re going to “watch TV.”

It’s a wonderfully produced, clever idea that rings true — but it’s too racy for a middle-of-the-road chain like JC Penney.

The client expressed outrage. The lead creative agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, apologized and said it “deeply regrets the message this ad presents,” and blamed the director, former Saatchi employee Mike Long, and Epoch. The production company pulled its submission and gave up the award.

By then, however, the fake spot reportedly garnered approximately 185,000 hits in less than two days and generated the kind of free media coverage that American Apparel or FCUK would kill for.

But the commercial was dealt the ultimate indignity of our age: Someone expunged it from the Internet.

The entire spectacle, from beginning to end, has put a spotlight on the authorized JC Penney back-to-school campaign that breaks July 18 from Saatchi. Conceived way before Cannes, it fits neatly into the zeitgeist of our more cautious, backward-looking times.

The dialog-free campaign, “Got that look,” is literally old school: an homage — if a cheery one — to The Breakfast Club, the John Hughes’ teen-angst movie of 1985. It even features the hit song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, re-done for the ad by New Found Glory. A lot less esoteric than Saatchi’s earlier campaign — which I really liked, but apparently didn’t sufficiently move the sales needle — the TV and cinema work also has none of the weird, dark and/or goofy aesthetics typical of Saatchi’s new CCO, Gerry Graf.

In fact, while the music’s good and it’s enjoyable to see how closely the movie’s setting has been reproduced, the work is strained, reminding me of some of the former dialog-free Gap spots that tried to show teens and young 20somethings doing wacky, zany stuff to music. It has none of the angst of the movie — and maybe that’s its biggest weakness. Hughes had a wonderful ear for the natural patter of teens. With that missing, these kids are left to dance and overact. Most surprising, this squeaky clean take on the movie is from director David LaChapelle. Perhaps the photographer, known for his outrageous and sexually charged portraits of celebrities, was shackled by some modern-day legal bondage.

It’s clever to have each archetypical kid representing a different JC Penney clothing brand. And the cast is updated to be diverse. But the badass John Bender (Judd Nelson in the movie, who wore those creepy gloves with the fingers cut off), doesn’t seem to be here.

The digital component is the strongest part of the work. The Web site (jcp.com/getthatlook) is engaging and, in addition to having clothing options pop up for easy ordering, users can follow each of the characters around the high school in longer stories that turn into video games with prizes. The updated Molly Ringwald “Princess” character, for instance, has a dog that runs away. We have to save him through a Ms. Pac-Man-like game called Duct Dash.

The overall iconography is great looking. There’s also a mobile component offering free ringtones, wallpapers and games.

The movie has become part of our pop-cultural connective tissue. For its 20th anniversary in 2005, it earned MTV’s Silver Bucket of Excellence Award. But while it’s relevant to kids, I think the campaign will resonate more with parents. Perhaps nostalgia for The Breakfast Club is the modern equivalent of watching a Busby Berkeley musical during the Depression.

At the very least, it takes your mind off what your kids are doing in the basement.