The Gap squanders a great Spike Jonze ad.

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 19 2005 6:35 AM

Pants Pants Revolution

The Gap squanders a great Spike Jonze ad.

Gap "Pardon Our Dust" The Spot: It's a quiet day at a Gap store. Then someone knocks a pile of shirts off a shelf. Someone else pushes over a mannequin. A plastic coat hanger is violently snapped in two. Within moments, there are windows breaking, minivans crashing through the entrance, motocross racers buzzing up the escalator, and chainsaw-wielding madmen hacking apart the building's support columns. "Pardon our dust," reads the tag line, "the all-new Gap is coming."

This ad ran in only a few select cities. It stopped appearing altogether more than a month ago. So, why am I writing about it? Because it's a brilliant spot that was, for some reason, completely wasted on the people who paid for it.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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Some back story: Gap decided a while back that its retail stores were looking dated; the displays needed freshening up. So, the company made some changes in the layout of its shops. (For instance, the Manhattan Gap at 59th and Lexington is getting an overhaul.) The point of this ad, as Gap deployed it, was simply to announce the remodeling effort.

Meanwhile, the company itself is in dire straits. In November, Gap Inc. reported its worst quarterly results in three years. Analysts said it's "time to get serious," and that the numbers suggest "customer defections continue unabated."

You can blame Gap's clothes. (I know I don't shop there anymore—none of their stuff appeals to me.) You can certainly blame the marketing. (Ad Age says Gap's focus on celebrity endorsements has been a big failure. I'm not surprised, especially since they chose really lame celebrities. Lenny Kravitz? Joss Stone??) But Gap has taken out its frustrations on the floor plans.

This is rearranging the track lighting on the Titanic. It's the entire Gap brand that needs a scrubbing, not just the stores. The Ad Age story quotes an analyst who says, "The Gap is now a category placeholder. It's the name everyone knows, but aren't real sure what it stands for anymore."

So: You've got a brand that everyone's familiar with, which is half the battle. The next step, it seems, would be to reinvent the meaning of that brand. It sounds like what the company needs is a piece of marketing that suggests radical changes are afoot—that the Gap brand is about to tear itself down to its foundations and be reborn. Where could they possibly find something like that?

Instead of running the "Dust" spot in just a couple of markets, and tying it exclusively to the remodeling effort, Gap should have used this ad as the centerpiece of a national campaign. Directed by Spike Jonze (the man behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), the spot is hilariously funny. I love the way it takes its time at first, allowing the petty transgressions to mount. Only after a woman snaps a hanger, with an explosion of plastic shards, does the camera zoom in frenetically and signal that all hell is about to break loose. From here, it's a wild romp, wonderfully executed.

The spot has been linked to all over the Web—evidence of how entertaining it is. And it would have been the perfect solution to the Gap's brand problem: Some self-deprecating humor, mixed with an ingenious visual metaphor. They wouldn't need to change a single word in that tag line. Alas, a spokesperson says they have no plans to run the spot in the future.

I just can't understand spending all that money on a big-name director, and a big-budget shoot, and then frittering the results away on such a limited purpose. Did Gap not see the possibilities? Were they too scared to go for broke? Or are they waiting on designs for some more appealing clothes before they brag about a new beginning? (I suppose they might not feel comfortable selling a revamped brand before they revamp the brand.)

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