But amid all the formidable spending, there are occasional bursts of real creativity. Witness Old Navy’s TV commercials that mix Carrie Donovan with Morgan Fairchild and the Smothers brothers. Or Target’s clever visual puns that depict household items as fashion, such as a $7.99 beaded car-seat worn as a dress with a $17.99 Gucci handbag knockoff.
Gap and sister company Old Navy Clothing Co. have been responsible for some of the most innovative retail advertising to come down the aisle in recent years. Both companies have flouted the convention of showing fashion models in pretty poses, featuring poets, musicians and kitschy Seventies and Eighties-era actors instead.
Last May, Gap broke new ground with its Easy Fit Jeans TV campaign featuring Aerosmith, L.L. Cool J., Lena Horne, Junior and Tanya Ray Brown, and Luscious Jackson. The performers sang their own renditions of the company’s tag line, “Fall into the Gap.”
Easy Fit Jeans was the company’s first TV campaign in many years and can still be seen in certain markets, a spokeswoman said. Gap reportedly spent in the neighborhood of $160 million on advertising last year for its Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic divisions.
Gap’s new campaign for khakis encompasses television, print and outdoor, and is a direct call to battle against Levi’s Dockers. The three TV spots, which were directed by Matthew Rolston, Josh and Jonas Pate and Roman Coppola, the son of Francis Ford Coppola, set in-line skating, swing and hip-hop dance performances to different music.
Old Navy’s new TV campaign, a quirky trilogy called “Destination,” stars Old Navy regulars Magic the Dog, Carrie Donovan and Morgan Fairchild. Set in the first-class cabin of a luxury jet from the Seventies, the commercials are a spoof on value, with guest appearances by Dr. Joyce Brothers, Isabelle Sanford and Sherman Hemsley of “The Jeffersons” TV series, and Joan Collins.
The Collins spot, entitled “Woof,” was scheduled to air last night along with a Gap khaki commercial on the final episode of “Seinfeld,” for which NBC charged $1.7 million to $1.8 million per a 30-second spot.
Old Navy, with 300 stores in the U.S., has rescued more than one actor from obscurity, and Donovan, a former New York Times fashion editor, has found a new calling as a recurring TV character. Her authoritative voice lives on in an ongoing “column,” which is actually an ad, that runs in the Times every Friday.
“Carrie has been someone great to introduce as `that lady with the big glasses,”‘ an Old Navy spokesman said. “We think Carrie gets people talking about the ads, wondering who she is. Carrie can talk about an item or a style in the ads, but she’s penning them from the perspective of a fashion editor.”
As Gap’s main competitor, The Limited, which operates some 3,800 stores, has historically shunned advertising. The company has long believed its stores are the best form of promotion, giant beacons in malls and urban shopping districts that reinforce a chain in the consumer’s consciousness.
But the divisions with the least advertising, Limited Stores, Express and Lerner New York, have suffered from weak sales and fuzzy brand image, while sales have soared at Victoria’s Secret, which according to Competitive Media Reporting (CMR) spent $16 million last year.
The Limited is now rethinking its advertising strategy.
“We’d be comfortable spending up to 2 percent of sales on advertising for any one of the brands in our portfolio that has its act together in terms of merchandising, internal marketing and store design,” said Edward Razek, president of Limited Brand & Creative services. Given that The Limited’s total sales will be $10 billion this year, the company could spend $200 million on advertising. But Razek indicated that not every brand is ready for prime time.
“Express is coming on strong and getting their collective act together,” Razek said. “Their merchandise and business is much improved. Limited Stores is a candidate. Their fall merchandise mix is the best I’ve seen in years.”
But he said, “I wouldn’t do any advertising for Lerner New York.” Victoria’s Secret catalog is its own best advertiser, according to Razek, noting its circulation of 420 million copies a year. The catalog bolsters Victoria’s Secret stores. Nonetheless, the stores will spend $60 million this year, primarily on TV, to hone their image, Razek said.
Sears, Roebuck & Co., the biggest retail spender, with a $1.3 billion budget in 1997, occasionally steps out from the safer side of Sears to produce quirky advertising. For example, the company juxtaposes soft goods with descriptions of hard goods in its “Softer Side” campaign.
In one commercial, the jingle, “Hey, sunshine, I need a dropcloth now,” refers to a bathing suit, and “metal screens” are silver shoes.
The campaign, which has been running since 1993, “continues to be very successful,” said John Costello, senior executive vice president of marketing at Sears. “It is continuing to generate increases in awareness, positive attitudes and traffic for Sears apparel. The merchandise continues to be the focal point of the advertising.
Asked how much longer before it runs its course, Costello said, “The theme has lasting potential, but we will continue to evolve it to make it fresh. The tag line and music have the potential to last for a long time.”
“We are continually testing new media, ranging from in-store displays to the Internet,” Costello said. “Newspaper is the foundation of our advertising effort, but we have significantly increased TV, direct marketing and new media expenditures in recent years.”
With its middle-American mentality, J.C. Penney — Sears’ key competitor — won’t push any creative boundaries with its advertising, but it uses plenty of muscle to deliver a mainstream message.
Penney’s annual advertising budget for department stores is $400 million to $500 million, with $129 million allotted for television alone, according to knowledgeable sources. Although the company declined to specify how much it spends solely for its department stores, its total annual advertising budget last year, including catalog costs and promotions for its Eckerd drug store chain, came to $977 million.
“We’re a national department store,” said Lynn Wisdom, national broadcast media manager, noting that the chain has 1,200 stores. “If you were to regionalize our spending it would be more in line with [competitors].”
Penney’s puts a lot of money into television and radio advertising because they are cost-effective ways of reaching its target audience of women. “Even with a lot of talk about TV viewership decline, it’s still the place to reach more current customers and prospective customers at one time,” Wisdom pointed out.
Penney’s won’t soon be changing its year-old slogan, “I love your style.” Research has shown the tagline is “one of the strongest we’ve had in a long time, and the jingle is memorable,” Wisdom said. “It’s a feel-good campaign that women can identify with. We are very careful to cast commercials so they are real people, not fashion models.”
Far more adventurous is Neiman Marcus, whose Art of Fashion series features the photography of Deborah Turbeville, who shot models in elegant gowns from the spring collections of Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Christian Lacroix in front of crumbling buildings and graffiti-riddled walls in Mexico.
The fall installment of the Art of Fashion was photographed last week in a studio here by Giovanni Gastel, an Italian photographer.
“We really see the Art of Fashion as an evolution,” said Steven Kornajcik, senior vice president of creative services at Neiman’s. “The last thing we want to do is repeat ourselves. We continually seek and find new approaches. The photographers and artists we’ve used we think have unique perspectives on fashion.”
In other advertising news, the company named a new songstress, Diana Krall, twice nominated for a Grammy Award for best jazz vocalist, to succeed Bobby Short as the NM crooner in all upcoming radio commercials.