Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Hitting The Bull’s-Eye

Forget about integrated everything. Though I write about advertising, I’m a journalist first, and I really don’t like the increasing blurring of the lines between the editorial and sales sides of publishing. So, to me, the idea of a single advertiser (Target, a discount chain, yet!) marrying itself to a highbrow magazine like The New Yorker appeared to be a cheesy marketing gimmick wrapped in a demographic accident. It seemed especially unfortunate for such a storied magazine to go along with this—like the Visigoths invading Rome or Howie Mandel filling in for Regis Philbin.

At least, that’s what I thought until I saw Target’s solo sponsorship of last week’s issue.

So I warn you: there is excessive gushing ahead, but every word is heartfelt.

I have a giant soft spot for illustration, and all of the drawings are clever, beautifully rendered and conceptually coherent. Some of the illustrators work on the editorial side as well, so the ads match the visual style of the magazine perfectly. (This has a precedent: Several advertisers have used the work of New Yorker cartoonists in ads running in the magazine. I like anything that Roz Chast does, but I don’t think those bastardized attempts to be funny work.)

Yet, much to my surprise, the Aug. 22 issue of The New Yorker is the smartest and most exciting example of branded entertainment I’ve ever seen.

For starters, how many contemporary American brands have a logo and a visual identity that is so strong and distinct that it can sustain 21 pages in a single issue—without a single product mention or word of text, mind you—and have it all remain immediately recognizable?

Brands like Gap or Apple come to mind, but neither could have executed it better.

The concept is genius: give a dizzying array of contemporary illustrators—Milton Glaser, Gary Baseman, Katherine Streeter, Ruben Toledo, to name a few—the simple assignment of creating a drawing with a New York theme, using black, white and red, and including Target’s trademark Bullseye.

André Dubois’ drawing appeals to dreamers and fashionistas alike: a highly stylized, giant red shoe covered in target polka dots acts as a bridge to the city. The shoe, which reminds me of an Andy Warhol drawing, is magical. It suggests a new kind of fairy tale. As opposed to the “Old Woman in the Shoe,” this woman has so many opportunities she doesn’t know what to do.

Speaking of myths and stylized women, one of my absolute favorite drawings is by Streeter and appears to use photo collage. It shows a mermaid sporting fashionably shaped eyebrows, a happening red bob and red lipstick, cooling her tail on the banks of the East River. She’s got a few targets dotting her scales, which mimic the chain-link fence behind her. This sort of fence usually symbolizes an up-from-the-rubble urban nightmare, but here it seems quite benign. It’s certainly not keeping her from flapping up to shore.

Yuko Shimizu’s riotous drawing could be the opening page of a graphic novel: The perspective is from the ground up as we watch a leather-clad female biker ride over the Brooklyn Bridge. The enormous red Target behind her dominates the sky, like a giant Japanese rising sun.

The iconography of the city is captured cleverly without a cliché in site. Ironically, in the illustrations, the bull’s-eyes completely infiltrate the city, while in reality, Target has yet to open a store in Manhattan.

Which brings us to the seeming demographic mismatch.

As New Yorker publisher David Carey will happily tell you (I only wanted a quick interview and he ended up selling me three pages in November), there are more New Yorker subscribers living in the state of California than New York itself. And because Target has always stood for the democratization of style and an elevated aesthetic, shopping there allows you to show your good taste even if you’re not rich. So its customers do run the high-low gamut, and some might just be out-of-town hipster-type New Yorker readers.

But more important, Target wanted to appeal to Manhattan media and fashion “influentials.” These days, most advertisers are focusing mercilessly on ROI. But thankfully, these illustrations are not intended to sell thousands of units of sneakers or backpacks. (Target uses newspaper circulars for that.) Rather, it’s about doing something bigger, smarter and with more impact—reinforcing Target’s long-standing branding effort, proving that the chain is innovative and always on the cutting edge of contemporary design.

Paradoxically, placing 21 thematically linked illustrations in a magazine is a rather old-fashioned way to do that.

The only problem is that the graphic greatness tends to overshadow the magazine’s own art direction—for this week, at least. I like the back cover (Toledo’s delightful take on the vertical grid of street lamps) more than the front cover (boys playing with beach balls that happen to be red and white). That sort of integration was unintended, I’m sure.