Slate's Ad Report Card: The Gap's Slick Campaign

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Slate contributor Seth Stevenson dissects a new Gap ad the company developed to explain upcoming store renovations in certain cities. Stevenson says the company missed an opportunity to poke fun at its image troubles by using a big-budget, well-directed ad.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Imagine that you're in charge of a major national chain of retail stores. Your brand has gotten a little musty, what do you do? One option is to tear down your business to its foundations and rebuild it. Another is to run an ad showing exactly that sort of restructuring, but then do nothing. Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate, brings us an example of the latter strategy.

SETH STEVENSON reporting:

It's a quiet day at a Gap store. Then someone knocks a pile of shirts off a shelf.

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; shirts falling on floor)

STEVENSON: Someone else pushes over a mannequin.

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; mannequin falling to floor)

STEVENSON: A woman violently snaps a plastic coat hanger in two.

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; coat hanger being broken)

STEVENSON: Within moments, there are windows breaking.

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; windows breaking)

STEVENSON: The driver of a minivan, seeing the destruction going on inside the store, cheerily crashes her vehicle through the entrance.

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; music; car crashing through door)

STEVENSON: And chain saw-wielding madmen hack apart the building's support columns.

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; chain saw; music)

STEVENSON: `What's going on here?' a viewer might reasonably ask. `Khaki Armageddon?' A tag line appears on the screen to answer all: `Pardon our dust,' it reads. `The all-new Gap is coming.'

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; music)

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

A little back story. Gap decided a while ago that its retail stores were looking dated. The displays needed freshening up, so the company made some changes in the layout of its shops. 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. You can blame Gap's clothes or its marketing, but Gap decided to take to take out its frustrations on the floor plans.

Frankly, this is rearranging the track lighting on the Titanic. It's the entire Gap brand that could use a scrubbing, not just the stores. 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?

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; music; car crashing through window)

STEVENSON: 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 hilarious. It's been linked to all over the Web, evidence of how wonderfully entertaining it is. And it would've been the perfect solution to Gap's brand problem; some self-deprecating humor mixed with an ingenious visual metaphor. Alas, a spokesperson says Gap has 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.

Incidentally, there's an even better version of the ad.

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; coat hanger being broken; "In the Hall of the Mountain King"; crashing noises; woman screaming)

STEVENSON: Hollywood blogger Jeffrey Wells found an alternate, discarded cut in which the soundtrack is not an innocuous pop jangle but rather Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King."

(Soundbite of Gap advertisement; "In the Hall of the Mountain King"; crashing noises)

STEVENSON: The juxtaposition of violence with a classical composition is gripping and dramatic, and suggests an even more profound rip in the fabric of The Gap universe. I give this ad on its own terms an A-minus, but for the implementation, a D-minus. You might as well hire Spike Jonze to direct your wedding video.

CHIDEYA: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, who writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine Slate.

DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Farai Chideya.

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