Opinion: Target’s Blue Christmas

Last month, in advance of the Thanksgiving weekend, Target rolled out a Black Friday campaign from Wieden + Kennedy that I found plenty strange, involving a crazy blonde lady. But at least it was forward-moving and energetic. This latest holiday work is pretty grim.

It makes me think of bad linoleum and clinical depression, and really, neither is much of a doorbuster. (Is Target wishing us a very Prozac Christmas? A Lexapro Kwanzaakah?)

What’s going on here, strategy-wise? Am I missing something?

Sure, I can appreciate that Wieden, Target’s new agency, wanted to break away from all the expected holiday chestnuts. Obviously the company would not have changed agencies if the previous work had been doing gangbusters.

But maybe they’re fixing the wrong thing.

For the last decade and a half, Target has stood for a democratization of style. The ads offered a witty, even elevated aesthetic while selling designer stuff at low prices. The advertising made the prospect of shopping at Target (“Tar-jay”) seem glamorous and fun, even if you had little money and were only buying Tide at a discount.

Did the client deem the previous work, with all those delightful, eye-pleasing visuals, to be too “fancy”? If so, that’s a shame. To throw out all that brilliant visual equity to make a price play against Walmart is a losing proposition.

The comedy here is of the contemporary, dark variety that acknowledges we’re in a recession. That’s good, but at the same time it makes everyone pretty much look like a doofus, or worse. In practice, these are exercises in occasionally funny perversity that strike the wrong tone for retail. When it comes to holiday gifts, the message boils down to an anti-L’Oréal slogan: You’re NOT worth it!

Way to rework Christmas morning, hipsters!

Of the seven TV spots, easily the most painful to watch is “Confession.” A little girl with braids, who looks to be about 11, opens her gift, a doll. (She’s probably on the cusp of being too old to want dolls, even the expensive ones.) Mom and Dad, still in their PJs, notice her state of decided non-glee.

“I thought that’s what you wanted,” Mom exclaims. The girl responds, “It is, but you spent way too much! I’ve been a bad girl!” And then she spills some shameful secrets, like reading her sister’s diary (her big sis is in the corner, texting) and getting a D on a spelling test. “Honey, we really didn’t spend that much!” Mom responds.

Meanwhile, she’s busted, and the squirm-worthy energy of the spot will probably confuse lots of kids. It ends with a few bars of “Chestnuts Roasting,” meant ironically, and the red Target logo. It seems more like a cell-phone commercial.

“Not There Yet” is not quite as bad, since it deals with young adults on a date who are old enough to get the prickly humor. Mr. Would-Be Boyfriend gives his lady-love a necklace. She opens it and says, “This is really nice … but I didn’t think we were there yet.” He responds by telling her that’s OK, “It really wasn’t that much.”

The tagline is “Great gifts at surprisingly great prices.” But to me, the fact that Target has great prices is not at all surprising. What’s surprising is that the characters use those great prices as ammunition, which just comes off as a bummer.

The dialogue across the whole campaign is crisp, and the casting and acting first-rate. And it’s attention-getting in its massive awkwardness. But to what end? Taking all the air out of gift-giving?

“Is It Working?” is the most relatable spot of the bunch. It shows a dad setting up a giant flat-screen TV, his derriere (in his Dad jeans) blown up on the screen, as his young sons train the video camera on him — and keep telling him there’s no picture. Despite the yuletide decorations in the living room, it says nothing about Christmas. It would be better at selling a pre-Super Bowl TV.

One final spot, yet to air on TV (but posted on Target’s YouTube channel), is sweet and simple, and will do the least harm. It shows Santa, red suited, white bearded, running in slow motion to “Choir of the Bells,” through an almost empty parking lot toward a lit-up Target store. Still, the takeaway is a slight feeling of emptiness.

In the National Retail Federation’s annual survey of shoppers’ favorite holiday ads, Target lost the No. 1 spot to Walmart this year, for the first time in three years.

Here, I’ll use a term that isn’t mine, “Santafreude,” to suggest the negative feeling of holiday wariness that this campaign exudes.

It might hit home, but it sure ain’t fun. More than chestnuts are being roasted here.

Better luck next year, guys.

Nielsen Business Media