Macy’s Revisits ‘Yes, Virginia’

On Dec. 11, Macy’s street teams will patrol cities in 15 markets, rewarding random acts of kindness on “National Believe Day.” The honorary holiday is part of the retailer’s “Believe” campaign, a holiday effort that kicked off this year with a TV commercial starring Queen Latifah and a little girl who makes “The Trek,” as the spot is titled, to Macy’s to mail her letter to Santa. A letter-writing campaign encourages customers to drop by the stores’ “Believe Stations,” where they can mail their own letters to Santa and help Macy’s raise donations to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Now in its second year, JWT’s “Believe” campaign turns to the true story that inspired it, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon writing to the New York Sun in 1897 to find out if there really is a Santa Claus, into a new animated special — titled Yes, Virginia — airing on “National Believe Day” on CBS.

“It’s the most famous editorial ever written about Christmas, so we thought let’s create a classic from a classic,” says Harvey Marco, CCO of JWT, New York, which produced the special in collaboration with The Ebeling Group and MEC Entertainment.

The story of Virginia O’Hanlon and the editorial from Francis Church that assured her, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” is part of Christmas lore. The Macy’s team, which ran ads based on her story last year, decided that a new telling of the tale would be a perfect fit for the retailer’s seasonal celebration and a valuable addition to holiday programming this year.

“It’s all about the notion of believing in something, and it can be whatever you want it to be,” says Martine Reardon, Macy’s evp of marketing. “It’s people’s own preference, whether that be optimism, generosity, world peace or that we solve world hunger. We want people to feel that they can believe. What this editorial represented to us was the epitome of that.”

The idea for creating an animation special for Macy’s based on O’Hanlon’s story was kicking around for about two years, says Reardon, since the development of the “Believe” platform, but budget and time constraints put the project on hold.

In addition to the show, the “Believe” initiative includes a 25-city Santa Tour and a “Believe” Web site that promotes an essay and video contest inviting visitors to tell the company why they believe they should win a trip to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The Make-A-Wish Foundation co-sponsors the site.

Although set in 1897, the show, which follows O’Hanlon’s quest around New York City to prove that Santa is real, is a fictionalized version of the Yes, Virginia story. It features the voiceovers of actors Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alfred Molina and Beatrice Miller as the lead character. The show was written by copywriter Chris Plehal, directed by The Ebling Group’s Peter Circuitt, and animated by Starz Animation in Toronto.

“They really are an entertainment brand, not just in the marketing approach, [but] with . . . the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the fireworks,” says Marco. “This seemed like the perfect fit for them to bring something from the holidays to life.”

Incorporating Macy’s into the show required “a very light touch,” says Wayne Best, ecd at JWT. “We wanted to make sure that Macy’s didn’t get slammed for making a 30-minute ad.” The team, which also included cd Matt MacDonald, employed the “Believe” campaign theme in the special in the form of the “Believe Meter” and branding elements like Macy’s star as well as the store, at which Virginia peers into a window in one scene. “Macy’s was around back then, so I think we had permission with the public to do that,” adds Best.

The production also allowed Macy’s and the team to grant the wish of 10-year-old Taylor Hay, who wants to become an actress, by giving her a part in the show. Her voice and likeness were used in one of the characters.
Chet Fenster, managing partner at MEC Entertainment and executive producer of the show, says that the special has the potential to be a perennial favorite. “The story has endured a hundred years. It has a timeless quality to it,” he says.  

In fact, the uplifting story was the basis of an Emmy Award-winning animated special in 1974. An advantage that Yes, Virginia has to becoming a modern classic is that it has the marketing muscle of Macy’s behind it, he adds.

“To do it in a way that has a brand involved to help market it and build awareness is an important factor,” says Fenster, who notes the show is competing not only with classics like Frosty and Rudolph but newer properties such as Shrek the Halls and The Muppets specials. “In order to establish a new one, it needs to have some familiarity built in, or you’ve got to be able to market it. And with Yes, Virginia, we have both.”