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School Daze

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Often, when there's been a trauma in a family—say a very public divorce with hurtful accusations, name-calling and stories in the press about cheating—children retreat. Some decide they want to fade into the crowd, hoping to appear exceedingly normal and ordinary, if a bit quiet.

That's the feeling I get from these new Wal-Mart spots, the first work from The Martin Agency, which are pretty bland. It won the $580 million (or so) account after a corporate drama worthy of The Young and the Restless.

For those who've been locked in a warehouse, a recap: Wal-Mart fired its star marketing director, the sizzlin' Julie Roehm, for allegedly getting caught at Nobu enjoying the bright lights with her new agency friends from DraftFCB.

OK, that wasn't it, exactly. During Roehm's tenure, Wal-Mart chose DraftFCB to handle its creative account. Then the company fired Roehm and her subordinate for inappropriate behavior, including allegations of a romantic relationship and accepting gratuities from DraftFCB. (Roehm is countersuing.) After her dismissal, Wal-Mart threw out the results of the initial review, rereviewed the review and chose to hire previous contender, all-around nice guy and upstanding creative stalwart Martin, also an IPG agency.

Four new spots for the back-to-school season have been released. The basic message: Why pay more than I have to for the stuff I really need and want. It's a strategy so obvious and expected that it comes across not so much as a big idea as a nice execution.

The spots, beautifully shot and paced, are more conversational in tone than past Wal-Mart work and feature contemporary-looking, sometimes quirky actors speaking occasionally entertaining lines over lulling music. The commercials won't offend and they definitely convey the brand equity of low prices. But nothing else in the spots is terribly distinct from other big-box retailers. In fact, they remind me of the low-key, easy-listening family humor spots that Spike Lee shot for K-Mart when it was at TBWA\Chiat\Day, before the agency got jiggy (and tons of attention) with the Joe Boxer crazy-half-nude-dancer guy.

I like the spot that sells graphic T-shirts, "With It," the most—it makes fun of adults who say things like "jiggy.'' It features parents talking about music and how they remember the importance of "being cool in school.'' The parents are 30- and 40somethings who use embarrassing lingo to make their points, like saying "You still have to be down with it.'' These are followed by cuts of kids repeating the words, as if their parents are so out of it they're talking about a buggy whip. The spot ends with a woman telling the camera, in an entertaining deadpan monotone, "I don't think they say 'jiggy' anymore.''

A similar theme pops up in "Kids Nowadays," a spot selling laptops—the only spot that makes a new point: Wal-Mart carries major name brands like HP, Toshiba, Sony and Dell. Parents and kids speak individually to the camera. One mother, sitting in the middle of an empty auditorium, says she now knows "where to find a low price on a good one.'' The message boils down to, "Kids, they sure know their computers!''

"The List," which is about the buying of school supplies, supplies us with interesting leaf-patterned backgrounds in classrooms and a coterie of parents girding themselves for battle. One woman says, "Don't panic, they smell fear.'' As one dad tells us, the two-word answer for "the list'' —school supplies like 5 pounds of construction paper and 3 gallons of Elmer's Glue—is "Wal-Mart. Their prices are unbeatable."

"I eat 'the list' for breakfast,'' says another dad, in the final comment. (Wouldn't the glue offset the fiber of the construction paper?)

A fourth spot addresses the ever-escalating price of gas, which is a big problem for stores like Wal-Mart. "Gas prices are crazy,'' one guy notes, but "paying more than I have to—I'm a lot of things, but not crazy.'' The setting in this one is clever and the casting, again, is smart and sort of cool, but some of the lines come across as too obvious and canned.

There are no smiley faces, which is good, and no "roll-back" graphics. But overall, the commercials are more like familiar corporate messages, replaying what the client wants to hear about itself instead of communicating any sort of emotional or powerful message that would resonate with consumers.

I know there's a bigger idea in there. Given all that's happened, maybe for now, it's afraid to come out.