Cafeteria Catwalk

Not only is this spot’s setup unlikely — it’s also highly unsanitary. One minute you’re sitting at lunch in the high-school cafeteria smelling the slightly sour milk in your little wax carton and the next thing you know some girl is putting her big, scary, black, buckled, four-inch stiletto-heeled platform shoe on the very table on which you peel your orange. She then leaps up and starts strutting along the white formica like it’s a runway.

Other members of the thin and fabulous club follow her onto the insta-catwalk as the whole place erupts into a full-blown fashion show, complete with some kid moving the industrial fan over to blow on the would-be-models’ hair and another blaring indie pop rock over the school’s intercom system.

At least that’s the scenario in this 60-second spot, the kickoff for JC Penney’s back-to-school campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi. Not only is the construct –suddenly something super-glam and magical happens in the old workaday world — the basis for many a musical (high school and otherwise), but it turns out that it’s also an effective way to show the merchandise.

But it does take a moment of adjustment. At first, I watched semi-horrified as the change in action felt unartful and kind of forced. The spot opens on an overly accessorized girl sitting and smiling demurely (she wears a great argyle cardigan, but the red earrings have to go). Once the fashion show starts, “Too Fake” by Hockey appear in white letters in the lower left corner of the screen. I thought it was some kind of clever, preemptive self-criticism of the spot, especially since I read “hockey” as “hokey,” but it’s actually the name of the song and band. Next I expected a cut to a narrator saying something cringe-worthy like, “Yo, dude, you’re lookin’ fly!”

When you get past the perhaps overly fly dudes hanging around in skinny jeans, graphic T’s, sneakers, porkpie hats and vests (and one guy pounding down the runway carrying a skateboard), it turns out the musical track, by Hockey, is pretty great. It’s magnetic and propels the production forward. (The spot was timed to run in cinema with the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.)

High energy and good natured, the spot manages to wedge many JC Penney designer brands (both clothing and, later, floating logos) into the action, and also gets high marks for the seemingly effortless diversity of the casting.

That’s a biggie for the teen audience. The latest Levi’s campaign, “Go forth,” has been criticized by bloggers for its whiteness — at least the film part of it — with the naysayers saying while the brand purports to be populist, the Levi’s videos, like some of the highly stylized Abercrombie & Fitch work, fail to capture the diversity of contemporary America.

In addition to being more balanced in terms of race (although it is looks- and weight-ist!), “Schooled in style-Smart looks for less” seems sensitive to the brutal, recessionary economy, with a built-in discretion about price. That will obviously resonate among cash-strapped kids (and parents).

Previous microsites for individual JC Penney brands have been consolidated on the new Web site, Razorfish and T3 also worked on the campaign. There’s a mobile application and a Facebook page-kids can sign up for texts about special deals and take part in a scavenger hunt for prizes like tickets to Hockey concerts.

The retailer is also sponsoring skateboarder Ryan Sheckler and introducing his line, RS by Sheckler, this fall in stores. There will be a TV spot based on some Sheckler action and he’ll also star in some upcoming virals on the Web site.

At 19, Sheckler’s been famous for a while, having starred in Life of Ryan, his own reality show on MTV, for the last two years. On the show he sometimes comes off as a young Donald Trump in the braggadocio department, saying stuff like, “Let’s see how I handle being the youngest sports mogul on the planet.” So perhaps he’ll become the California kid looking for vert ramps in all the wrong places. But for now, his line of T’s and sweatshirts seems fresh and skateboardy — and, most importantly, low priced.
The campaign isn’t rocket science nor is it as beautiful or classic a story as “The Aviator,” Penney’s award-winning, brilliantly watchable commercial of several years ago showing a tough-minded little girl heading to the North Pole in a homemade rocket.

This campaign is much more clothes-centric. It will talk to teens and give them some fashion options. I just hope it doesn’t result in creating new challenges for the lunch ladies — we don’t want any scuff marks on the mystery meat.