Yes, Virginia, It’s a Macy’s Ad

Yes, Virginia . . . ” is that classic newspaper editorial from 1897, written by New York Sun editor Francis P. Church in response to a letter from Virginia O’Hanlon, an earnest 8-year-old who, all those years before Barbie and the Big Wheel, wanted to know if Santa Claus existed. Insightful, kind and timeless, Church’s words never fail to bring a tear to my eye.

At least that’s what I thought, until I saw some of them acted out by none other than Donald Trump in a Macy’s commercial, as part of the retailer’s current “Believe” holiday campaign from JWT.

“How dreary would be the world,” the Trumpster says, standing stiffly in his blue suit, arms extended like a fifth grader forced to emote in a school play, “if there were no Santa Claus.” He’s trying his best, but watching his mouth. I could only think of Rosie O’Donnell doing her full-lipped impersonation of him, and I completely lost the “narrative thread.”

Yup, being blinded by the Trump is unfortunate. This is a case of a celebrity comb-over getting in the way of a really good message. And that’s a shame, because elements of this Christmas campaign are spectacular. In particular, its commitment to charity — Macy’s is pledging $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation (up to $1 million) for every letter to Santa it receives from customers, young or old, in red mailboxes installed in its stores.

Trump is one of many “stars” shoehorned into the spot, reading excerpts of the editorial. Although they all have their own branded lines of merchandise with the retailer, their connection to charitable giving and/or the Christmas season seems awfully random.

Trump, for example, has a men’s suits and furnishings line at Macy’s, but he’s known to buy his own at Brioni. And in the charity department, I know he publicly offered to bail out Ed McMahon, who was in danger of losing his house and had resorted to rapping in a video for FreeCreditReport.com. Wheth- er Trump ever came up with the scratch for Ed remains to be seen.

But I digress. The point is, the Macy’s set is decorated to be all outdoorsy and sparkly, with many lit-up Christmas trees — but these people don’t match at all, in form or content. Carlos Santana, who has a line of women’s shoes (that seems kind of kinky, doesn’t it?), sports an open-collared black-and-white patterned shirt and dark hat. Martha Stewart is the only one who seems appropriately garbed, with a red scarf wrapped jauntily around her neck. She’s the last to go, and really drives the poem home with the “He lives and lives” line, until she passes the torch to a little girl, who puts a letter in a red mailbox and breathily says, “Forever.”

I got the Macy’s branding concept by then, but the connection between writing a letter to Santa and supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation escaped me. And the overall effect is forced and stilted.

These celebs worked better in previous spots, which differentiated Macy’s offerings from those at other retail stores (a tough job these days if you’re not Wal-Mart). The very first ad in the series, last year, showed Usher, Diddy, Martha and Donald, among others, decorating Macy’s the night before a big opening. That context made a lot more sense (we actually got to see the goods), and it also poked fun at the giant egos involved — Trump was shown jokily blow-drying his follicular challenge in a mirror, while Jessica Simpson played the ditz who had to be gently reprimanded by headmistress Martha.

The spot ended with a voiceover that said, “Only one store can bring all these stars together. That’s the magic of Macy’s.” And the celebrities do figure nicely into the graphic star in the logo: They suggest that the shopping experience will be “magic,” and that you just might rub shoulders with a celebrity.

The other new holiday stuff is fun: The print focuses on the “Yes, Virginia” piece, and a microsite, macys.com/believe, is artfully constructed and nicely designed, using 19th-century-style snow globes, and includes an electronic “Believe Meter” and the story of O’Hanlon. It also allows users to download writing paper with a Santa letterhead and a “Be Claus” widget that customizes uploaded photos.

And I love the TV spot for the 150th anniversary that uses clips from old movies and TV shows that mention Macy’s. It’s honest and effortless, and offers delightful clips cut at a charming pace (including one in which Johnny Carson makes fun of “Little Eddie” McMahon going to Macy’s). One fascinating bit of early-20th-century footage shows a woman getting out of a carriage and walking into the big Macy’s in New York, which boasts a sign that says, “It’s smart to be thrifty.” That’s a timely sign.

The charitable spirit of “Yes, Virginia” is great, but that execution should have been about the simplicity, power and honesty of helping others — not the stilted noblesse oblige of a lineup of paid promoters.