For much of this decade, Target was one of the most sophisticated and effective advertisers in the retail industry. Their ads were bright, upbeat and infectious, and they made their products the heroes of every one. Most impressively, these ads were instantly recognizable as Target ads, even if you didn’t see the Target name or distinctive logo until the very end of the spot. In a word, this advertising was smart.
Several articles in various business journals have discussed Target’s recent strategic shift to increase its emphasis on low pricing in response to its soft sales trends. Changing your strategic stripes is always dicey, and based on the slew (sleigh?) of holiday ads Target has launched in recent weeks, it looks like they’ve yet to get a handle on their new tack. And the result could be a real dent in Target’s brand equity.
Several of the ads involve vignettes in which a gift recipient is concerned that the gift-giver has spent too much on them. Each time, the ad ends with the giver saying that the gift didn’t cost as much as it appears, and that’s fine. What I don’t like is what happens in the middle of the ad, which is invariably a downer. In “Confession”, a young daughter’s guilt forces her to confess bad things she’s done, like reading her older sister’s diary and forging her mom’s signature. In “There Yet”, a young woman feels compelled to let her gift-giver know that she’s not as into the relationship as he appears to be. Both spots are only marginally funny and leave you feeling a little sad, a little uncomfortable, or both.
Another ad called “Is It Working?” shows a boy projecting his father’s rear-end onto their big-screen TV, while the unsuspecting father is trying to fix the TV that his son has led him to believe is not working properly. Written or directed differently, this ad could be amusing or even charming, but instead it comes off as sophomoric at best and mean at worst. All of these ads end with a voice singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” but the feeling you’re left with is hardly a warm one.
A prior series of ads, including one called “Gingerbread”, featured an over-caffeinated Martha Stewart-like “perfect homemaker” who is clearly stressed out keeping up with all of her holiday projects. The first ad made me smile slightly, but by the third one I wanted this lady to leave me alone and return to her asylum.
I’m all for using humor in advertising, but–especially for a mainstream advertiser with Target’s upbeat brand image–the humor should be smart, uplifting and light rather than clumsy, cynical and dark.
It seems clear that Target’s marketers have abandoned their brand’s distinctive persona without identifying an appealing replacement, and I suspect that the result will be a 2009 holiday season with decidedly off-target sales.