Of the three big players in the discount-store game, Kmart has famously been the big loser of late: It's filed for bankruptcy, announced plans to shutter hundreds of stores, and saw its CEO resign. Wal-Mart, hewing to a relentless focus on low price, is the category gorilla. And then there's Target, smaller but coming on strong, for reasons generally attributed to its hip, trendy image. A big part of Kmart's problem is that, in contrast to its rivals, the chain never seemed to settle on a definitive strategy or image. The company is making a fresh run at addressing these problems with some new ads, released to a good deal of attention a few weeks ago and directed by Spike Lee. You can see three of these spots
The Target ads: The new spots are a descendent of ones that I reviewed, positively, way back when: They mix color-saturated imagery, playing with the Target logo, against a backdrop of engaging music. The main difference is a cranking up of the general presence of the color red and a cranking down of specific brand mentions; the old ads were very clever in making Target seem like the coolest possible place to buy a box of Tide, but these offer more direct appeal on behalf of the chain's cheap-chic apparel offerings. "Jump" starts with jump-roping kids, segues to a woman on a swing, skateboarders, badminton players, and a Hula-Hooper, to an upbeat rock tune. "Beach" is a series of scenes from the seaside, finishing with the Target logo as the setting sun, to a slower rendition of the same song. Both alternate between color and red-and-white images and play aggressively with the logo; there are no brand names, and it's hard to tell if even the props are things one might buy at Target. In the "Boys" and "Girls" ads, real young men and women interact with graphics, usually against a bright red background and usually just looking adorable in outfits that I guess they bought at Target, as they pogo or toss boomerangs. The music in these two spots is by the Donnas.
The Kmart ads: There are three spots here, and they're all very similar. Each is a series of quick clips, alternating product shots (in a domestic setting), warm scenes from around the home, and average-shopper types of varying race and age speaking directly to the camera in fast snippets. An identical music track plays in each ad: generic, friendly guitar-strumming. We see Mom dancing with kids. We see Dad snuggling with baby in the kitchen. A woman says: "The best thing about family—it's yours. The worst thing? It's yours." (On the latter sentiment, we see a guy coming out to get the newspaper in his underwear.) An older man says, "If it's on a nice plate, any meal is special." We see some brands: Bounce, Tide, Bounty, and so on. "Is there such a thing as laundry elbow?" asks another mom. More comments: "A dollar should stretch—so should your pants." "Mom, also known as the human napkin." We see kids playing video games or hassling the family dog. And so on. Each commercial ends with the on-screen words: "Kmart: The Stuff of Life."
Spiked? I actually had to go back and double-check that Spike Lee directed the Kmart spots because they seem so timid. Lee has created brilliantly funny, instantly recognizable, and thoroughly memorable ads for Nike and others. Perhaps because of this, I had assumed that tapping him meant Kmart was going to push in a truly fresh direction. But that's not really the case. If you strain you can sort of detect his influence in the pacing and some of the (very mild) humor, but it seems to me these ads could have been directed by anybody and that they could have run at any point in Kmart's history; there's almost nothing new about them at all. "The Stuff of Life"? That sounds like a rejected Sears slogan, for crying out loud. If Kmart wanted to make an image splash, why not try something a little more noticeable? If you can't take a risk when you're already bankrupt, when can you take a risk?
Target practice: The Target spots are far more successful at standing out. And while they don't strike me as being quite as original as those ads I reviewed a while back, that's probably a bit unfair. Any clever campaign always runs up against the problem of wearing out its welcome, and Target's doing a relatively good job of keeping things both interesting and somewhat consistent at the same time. The most striking thing is how much energy the spots have, still somehow suggesting that there's some kind of crazy, ravelike party going on at Target, and if you hurry on down, you might meet someone cute. Of course, if Target's marketing pushes too far in this direction, it's going to tumble into self-parody territory and lose touch with the fact that the product here, after all, is a discount store. The last retailer to get elevated from workaday merchandiser to self-styled fashion icon, partly on the strength of distinctive advertising, was the Gap—and that didn't work out so well.