Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Penney’s New Shine

Who could have predicted that among the great ads introduced on the Oscars (Apple, Diet Coke) the award for Breaking Campaign with the Most Unexpected Sense of Style and Mystery would go to—wait a minute, I’m fussing with the envelope, here-—J.C. Penney?

At a time when Gap has just closed its Forth & Towne stores (not because the name sounded like a place selling marmalade, but because the trend is back to women shopping in department stores), Penney’s spectacular image makeover from its new agency, Saatchi, couldn’t come at a better moment. Immediately, my question was whether the in-store experience and merchandise (pretty polyester-ish, as I remember it) could possibly live up to the strikingly sophisticated brand image re-do.

Of course, no amount of “love marks” image action can counteract a bad shopping experience, so the jury’s out. (It’s also out on whether the campaign will necessarily get more traditional and sales-y.) But, for now, let’s bypass the qualifiers; the retailer promises that improved customer service and better quality brands are a major part of the new marketing mojo, so let’s just go to the videotape.

The launch spot, “Anthem,” opens on a 360-degree view of a rotating house. (This is not CG—the production crew built a house that rotates.) The look is eerie and deep, textured and beautiful, and the music, an original piece by Nylon in Australia, is hypnotic. I was riveted by the visuals and had no idea what the brand was (for a moment, I thought Ikea). But from the beginning, this dream world was a place I wanted to lounge around in. The details, like having clothing stick out of kids’ dresser drawers, make it less fake, but it’s still hyper-real. There’s a calendar theme, which underscores the tagline, “Every day matters.” (I think the tagline is the only part of the work that’s pretty pedestrian.) And the day isn’t linear; it’s more like a trance, with its own unique rhythms. So even when the mom puts on a diamond necklace, a scene we’ve seen a thousand times, it still seems more imaginative and less Zales-esque.

“Anthem” sets a mood, but another spot, “Life Imitates Art,” a visual delight that also directly sells the merch, is the most successful of the bunch. One of several film montage ads to run during the Academy Awards, it works on several levels: It beautifully re-creates iconic scenes from such films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Singin’ in the Rain and Mary Poppins, while cleverly reconstructing them using Penney’s clothing. (The microsite will carry all the outfits. For now, its products are grouped under headings such as “romance” and “family,” which makes browsing more exciting.)

My favorite scene involves the woman impersonating Dustin Hoffman as the homeless hustler Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. She bangs on a cab in the middle of the crosswalk. “Hey, I’m walkin’ here,” she wails, kicking it. Not a day goes by when I don’t want to do the same thing, and now I know I can do it in style, in a dress. The topper, though, is that a Travis Bickle-style driver with a mohawk is at the wheel. The montage homage also offers fantastic music—a Burt Bacharach song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—and pays off with the line, “Today’s the day to feel like a star.”

Set in Grand Central Terminal, “Train” is a beautiful piece of work involving a couple meeting cute—or not. People and things keep appearing and disappearing as Ms. X and Mr. Y do a flirty mating dance. Again, the cinematography and cuts are first rate, including the part that seems to stop time by having an empty picture frame show up in the midst of the scene. (Frames are powerful visual devices, as their successful appearances in HP and Diet Coke spots attest.) The music, by the Zombies from The Life Aquatic soundtrack, is wonderful here, too. But unlike the other spots, this one doesn’t come full circle back to Penney’s.

The fourth and final spot promotes “Ambrielle,” the company’s new lingerie line. Granted, it’s tough to sell sexy underwear respectfully on TV, and this thankfully has a different and lower-key vibe than Victoria’s Secret. (Also, I didn’t see Bob Dylan lurking anywhere, a plus.) In this languid spot, women look at themselves slowly in mirrors, gazing at their (sometimes artificial) breasts encased for maximum cleavage enhancement in push-up bras. I guess the image was supposed to evoke a Gauguin painting from his Tahiti days—he would often show women gathered together, grooming each other. But observing the women observing themselves is kind of creepy, and how many women do you know who actually have these moments? The result is like something from Pretty Baby, or maybe it’s brand new, from The House of the Rising Penney.

Overall, let’s face it, these days every retailer has Target-envy. I give this campaign high marks for its fresh, entirely ownable look and feeling. Truly, it’s advertising as tone poem—and it does summon up a lot of emotion and, dare I say, reverence.