JCPenney in Dwell, Still Out of Touch

Ah, that wonderful time of the month when the crisp new Dwell magazine arrives. Dwell. Stuffed to the gills with decorative inspiration and certain to pump up the Craigslist search volume of all mid-century modern tables and historical hand-woven baskets profiled within, Dwell defines modern modern taste. Its motto: “At home in the modern world.”

Look: June 2013


Snazzy, right?

Aren’t you now tempted to find a coffee table with inlaid tile? Isn’t it impossible to imagine why you haven’t previously thought of placing a few paving stones geometrically in the midst of your manicured sod to create a transitional inside-out eating space? Don’t you want a rug like that that really ties the room together? It’s not just you. And, it’s not just on the cover. Page after page of lush, modern wonderfulness ramps up the envy, sometimes alongside a recipe for ramps. Advertisements carefully blend in with the features, themselves often just as interesting.

Hive Modern, a place to find Herman Miller and Knoll, has a two-page spread. Bosch matches Hive’s spend, featuring stainless appliances for the dream kitchen you’re sure to be planning. Big Ass Fans manages only a single page to feature their aptly named products. But between the split Contents section, an 8 page, 2/3 scale booklet insert defies the numerous business reply subscription cards for your attention. Drop the magazine, and the booklet ensures it opens to just one place. Charles & Ray Eames? Lindal Cedar Homes?

JCPenney. Yes, a brand new JCPenney.

If you’re interested in business, you know that JCP hired former Target and Apple Store guru Ron Johnson with the hope that he’d overhaul the company and attract a new, younger customer base. They evidently neglected to insist that he not alienate the existing, older customer base in the process, a task he quickly mastered by eliminating things the existing, older customers loved about JCPenney’s: constant sales and newspaper-clipped coupons. Oh, he also forgot to get the existing, older employee base on board with the changes. Slight oversight. After 17 months on the job, and after starting several initiatives that had yet to come to fruition, JCP ruled the efforts a failure and dumped Johnson.

Back came the sales and coupons. But Johnson had already paid for some changes that had yet to be rolled out. A massive new effort featuring housewares and furniture is starting to appear in stores. Quality products and known designers have replaced the second-rate disposable kitchen supplies and crummy store brands. In some locations, these changes have involved expensive build-outs to draw the sought-after new, younger customers into the departments.

I’ve investigated one of these new JCP locations personally, and feel the selection and prices to be superior to Macy’s. I’d even consider them competitive with Generation X wonderland, Crate and Barrel. Sir Terence Conran has a line here, for crying out loud. This from a store that had previously occupied a similar brainspace to Sears before Sears added Land’s End. That would be the brainspace of “never, ever go here for any reason, not even to buy gifts.” The new section looks very good, and I’ll swing through if I need something.


In my mall, JCP has three floors. I’ve still got to slog through the same old ’80s outgassing polyester smelly clothing section (and a smellier in-store Sephora) to get to the escalator to the current decade. Only the intrepid will do this, so it’s likely the Conran goodies will be on clearance before too long. I’ll probably get a coupon in the Sunday paper. Alas.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with the advertising of JCPenney?

Patience. You need context. Context makes things make sense. Context illuminates what otherwise might be kept forever in the dark. It is in the context of the great transition and subsequent pull back that JCP purchased what I can only assume is their first ever ad in Dwell. If they’ve previously advertised in Dwell, I’ve speedily flipped past it as though it was a Radio Shack (er, “The Shack”) ad.

But you can’t miss this:


Young, hip, multicultural professionals gather in a Dwell-worthy dwelling. Kids, heels, Converse All Stars and an Airedale make what could be austere, accessible. And only the new JCP logo all the way on the bottom right tells you what’s for sale.

That logo appears toward the bottom right edge of the 8 page booklet too, which opens to trumpet “…ALL THE BIG NAMES UNDER ONE ROOF.” Big names such as Dyson, KitchenAid, Cuisinart and Martha Stewart. I’m listening…

So, what’s wrong with this ad? Why is it wickedBADvertising in print?

The copy starts by addressing the audience: “DEAR AMERICA.” Good enough. We can infer that the America being targeted is roughly the rainbow coalition of upwardly-mobile breeding age Americans pictured above. “YOU WORK HARD.” Thank you for noticing, JCP. Gen. X was frequently derided as comprised of slackers in years past. We’re pleased you appreciate our work ethic.

“YOU DESERVE GREAT HOME BRANDS AT GREAT PRICES.” Yep, that’s just what I was thinking. Home Brands. I deserve them. They’d better be great. Really hits home. I totally conceive of my nesting as the acquisition of brands. OK, I don’t. I was just trying to be nice. Who, exactly, besides folks stuck in the marketing echo chamber at JCP, relates to the world in these terms? Brand loyalty is a real thing. But people shop for the brand to which they are loyal, not for the abstract concept of “great brands.” The word “BRAND” is for internal use by jargonauts, in the same way doctors might discuss amongst themselves a myocardial infarction rather than a heart attack. Unless it’s Russel Brand. The guy, not the clothing.

“YOU’RE INVITED TO THE WORLD’S BIGGEST HOUSEWARMING PARTY.” As depicted, I hope. The party does look decent. Although, at my parties the adults tend to congregate in the kitchen. “RIGHT HERE AT JCPENNEY.” So this cool party is the new JCPenney? I’m there! That works well enough. Plus, if you’re familiar with the TV spots, in which the blue JCP logo and the red outline box get wrapped around things JCP wants you to think of when you’re thinking about JCP, it ties in.

The real problem is in the picture.

No, there is no “Hitler Teapot.” Instead, there are extra African Americans. JCPenney wants us to think that they’ve got black friends, so at least a couple of them show up in the panoramic, ostensibly single picture of a party-in-progress, on both sides of the picture. Check ’em out. The lovely woman in the hounds-tooth dress appears both third from the left and fifth from the right. On the left, she’s talking to a bald guy in a lavender shirt. He’s second from the left. But on the other side of the party, he’s the eighth head from the right (including the shoulder-mounted child, who shares madras shorts, white-soled black shoes, pastel top and hands in the air with a possible but too blurry to tell non-white doppelganger running past the kitchen).

For a company with a questionable record (and a few EEOC settlements) on race relations, it’s a pretty pathetic oversight by EVERYONE involved. This is the re-launch of the JCP brand, in a very expensive booklet insert ad in an upscale design magazine. The ad makes a problem proposition relating to hard working people deserving “brands.” That message is paired with a photo shoot that requires some of the black people to do twice the work to deserve the same brands.

It’s obvious that racial makeup was important to the composition of the photo, although the host doesn’t seem to have invited any visitors of Asian or Hispanic heritage. Why, then, go through the trouble of doubling-in some extra African Americans? Unless, of course, it was a mistake. How many people signed off on this final copy? Sure makes that marketing budget seem well-spent, eh? Either way, it’s awful.

Wicked. Bad.