The Spot: Target’s Short Stories

Wieden + Kennedy crafts a huge mosaic of slice-of-life commercials, 15 seconds and one product at a time

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GENESIS: Target wanted to highlight its wide variety of products through charming slice-of-life stories about when its customers need them the most. Wieden + Kennedy went with 15-second spots instead of :30s, so it could tell more stories and have each one elegantly focused on a single product.

The structure: nine seconds of plot; a one-second reveal (with a ding sound, like a lightbulb going off) when a product resolves the tension; and five seconds of outtro music, as the bull's-eye logo swipes over a pair of taglines, "Life's a moving target" and "Expect more. Pay less."

The agency has done more than 125 spots since last May—a mosaic of plots, products, songs, and styles in a reductivist construct that's hard to keep fresh. "What looks like a formula is not a formula," says Will Setliff, Target's vp of marketing. "It is so not simple to come up with simplicity."

COPYWRITING: Many teams work on the scripts, seeking witty insights that feel observed, not manufactured. "It's not that hard to do a good one, but it is very hard to do an excellent one," says Wieden creative director Rob Thompson. "The trap everyone can fall into is solving the riddle: A plus B equals C, yay, I solved it."

Done right, the reveal is a delightful surprise—and the viewer, having been called on to puzzle it out, feels complicit in that joy.

Three of the agency's favorite spots achieve that in different ways.

In "Crying Milk," a girl dabs milk on the rim of her glass, and it falls like a tear. "Don't cry, milk. I miss them too," she says. (Ding! Oreo cookies.) In "Questions," a wife thinks she has food poisoning, but her husband, who had the same dinner, is fine. (Ding! First Response pregnancy test.) In "Neighborhood," a whole cast of characters tries to coax a cat out of a tree. (Ding! Fancy Feast.)

"It can't be too obvious that you see it coming, or so cryptic that you never get it," says Wieden creative director Chris Mitton.

The campaign began with several Lost tie-ins during the ABC show's series finale in May 2010, and has included a number of seasonal-specific spots, too.

ART DIRECTION: The ads stay within Target's aspirational visual language, but with enough variety that they don't get stale.

"It's a more composed, more thoughtful, little bit brighter version of life. This isn't verité," says Thompson. "But we don't want it too composed and too much of a visual equation, just as we don't want it to be a joke equation."

FILMING: The agency has used eight directors so far—Wayne McClammy, Patrick Daughters, Kinga Burza, Jack Bender, Aaron Ruell, Renny Maslow, and the team of Phil Morrison and Joe Ventura—and shot in Southern California and Hawaii.

The next director might shoot in New York and try handheld camerawork—which could lend an even more observed feel, as long as it maintains Target's traditionally elegant sense of composition.

TALENT: The actors play customers of all ages and demographics. They need to make an impression in seconds while playing things honestly and subtly. "It's a lean-forward kind of approach," says Mitton. "They have to really draw you in."

SOUND: The agency licensed dozens of tracks for the outtro music, many from the '80s. "That felt relevant to the target—people in their 30s and 40s, women in particular," says Thompson. "There's not just a nostalgia but a warmth there. It reminds them of their high school days in a cute, funny, irreverent way." The agency hopes to introduce more unknown current artists in future spots.

MEDIA: The spots run on national broadcast and cable, then online. Where possible, two spots run in the same pod, ideally bookending it. Setliff says all the metrics are up, and viewers are engaging sooner with each new spot.

"They know there's a story to come," he says. "It's become a page-turning mentality. What's the next story? What's the next page?"

THE SPOTS: The three ads described above are posted below, along with creative credits for each one. Click here to see 121 more spots from the campaign.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.