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.


What could be more social than tailgating? Beer, brats, bros – the elements are all there for a wonderful day of sports enjoyment.

If you watch a sporting event on TV, you’ll see an average of 4, 362 ads during the course of the event. At least 200% of these ads will be staged at a tailgate party or at a viewing gathering at a bar or house. The announcers of the game have a 92% chance of giving you 5.2 useless and inane statistics per breath while saying, “…you talk about the X…,” and, “…from the standpoint of…” in 55.8% of sentences during clear weather – unless it’s the playoffs, when the number drops to 44.8%.

But if you’re actually at a tailgate party, surrounded by merry friends, monomaniacal fans and a misappropriated feline, AT&T has a best-practices guide for your behavior. Be a jagoff.

The basics:

Your Friend: “Hey, buddy, I care about you and like for you to feel included. Did you hear this really interesting news I just heard?”
You: “Um, yeah, jackass – heard that already – Where have you been?”

Advanced cases:

Your friend: “Hey guys! I respect your knowledge and would like to learn how to do something. Can you help me?”
You: “You’re dumb – we already know how to do that and won’t help you learn.”


Your friend: “I love you and don’t want you to be eaten by a tig-”
You: “Dude, the tiger is already full.”

All of the sweet, thoughtful people in the ad are dismissed as behind-the-times, and we’re supposed to want to emulate the only two d-bags.

This isn’t the only version of the ad. Though the heroes are now women, the same “emulate the a-hole” dynamics are hard at work here too. Terrible.


Summoning Bad Ads from Nowhere

AT&T has been running this wickedBADvertisement since the launch of the new iPhone 4s.

An attractive young couple is getting ready to share a “Romantic Dinner” beneath a canopy of twinkle lights. A fire warms the patrons (and the spirit). Glasses and silverware clink as low, heartfelt conversations are had by all of the smiling and nodding couples in the ostensibly two-top only restaurant that serves hearty meals comprised of bread and water.

Then, we learn that the featured guy is a liar. He’s not paying attention to his lovely date. He’s watching the game on his phone in his lap. Oh, and clearly they’ve spoken about this issue already – he’s defensive at her suggestion that he might be multi-tasking their date. Which he is. So she backtracks, reminding him of earlier issues which have caused her to be a little, “over-sensitive.” Of course, we now know that she was right in the earlier situations too, making it all the more sad that she’s still with this guy. He’s basically lied his way into making her doubt herself all the time. He’s a good liar too – eye contact and all. He might believe his lies. He might not care who knows, so long as he gets what he wants from the situation. He might be a sociopath.

Fortunately (for her), they’re not married (pause at 0.16 to view his ring-less left hand, flailing demonstratively in deceptive protest). This guy is a class-A douche, but… he’s the ROLE MODEL in the ad.

Sales pitch: You too can effortlessly deceive your nagging, attention-wanting partner with our new, fast network.


Don’t Kid Yourself

Wow, I was dumb when I was a kid. I used a rope swing. Once, I almost landed on my stupid brother! Phew! I’m glad those risky days are over.

I was also pretty dumb in school when I was a kid, because I didn’t learn anything about erosion. I seem to think that the crumbly cliff I’m standing on has been frozen in time, unchanged, for the past 40+ years. This rope swing is the same one that I used to use as a youngster too. The rocks look sharp and pointy. I bet they’ve been sharpened by all those waves over the years, ’cause that’s how waves work!

Today, I’m way smarter. I use medications with lots of properly disclaimed risks including death. I tempt the fates walking my dog without bringing a leash. I go hiking alone, wearing absorbent 100% cotton and denim – what every hiker wears. I rock some long swim trunks underneath my jeans when I hike, so when the opportunity arises, I can go swimming in some heavy river current with my dog… and my clogged arteries… alone.

What’s that? Sunblock? Nah, look – no tan lines! Sunglasses? Retinas of steel. Anyway, diet and exercise didn’t work, so I just do what my doctor tells me. That guy had to be good in school, right? He’s a doctor!


Start with a Classic

In world in which all problems have been solved, Jason Alexander offers the solution to the problem nobody has been having, spawning a major branch of future advertising more frequently associated with pharmaceuticals.

The McDLT. It could be the best tasting lettuce and tomato hamburger (pause for skeptical look) ever!

Accosting eager passersby with a delicious solution to the apparently ubiquitous problem of mushy, warm veg on their (ostensibly) “beefy” meat patties, Alexander sings and dances his way to wickedBADvertising glory.

This is a wickedBADvertisement for several reasons.

1. The song: “Beefy” isn’t a word to sing. Let’s get that out in front. The McDLT is for adults only, based on the childless world in which it is being offered. Everyone is sterile and there are no more children. They have all clearly given up on their hair and wardrobes. All of the non-whites in this town have lost all self-respect (and rhythm), Ronald McDonald is nowhere to be seen, and there is no PlayPlace under the golden arches. The horror. However, people do seem to be awfully chummy and agreeable (despite the intolerable circumstances of rampant soggy lettuce), so maybe the no-kids world isn’t so bad. Interestingly, only a few years after the McDLT was discontinued, McDonald’s introduced the Arch Deluxe… which they marketed directly and explicitly to adults. It flopped. Clearly adults need to be stealthily marketed to with a sneaky strategy such as…

2. Ad Solves a Problem Created by Advertiser: Burgers only previously had the condition of soggy veg due to McDonalds’ habit of having burgers prepared (hours?) in advance and tossed down a tin chute into a heating area. In the ozone-busting Styrofoam confines of the burger clamshell, irony would kick in to create a micro-greenhouse effect – steaming and reducing to flaccid mush the flavorless iceberg and unripe beefsteak. Buuuuuuttttt…

3. Blame the Customer: Clearly, this two-chambered container can’t be necessary due to McDonald’s product or practices being flawed, so it must be your fault, loyal customer. It’s during transit that everything gets all gross – so we don’t serve McDLT sandwiches to customers who sit in the dining room. Except that we do. Ooops.

4. Global Slogan Tie-in: Yep, you remember it, “It’s a good time, for the great taste, of McDonald’s.” This was one of many jingles McDonald’s has used to poison your childhood memories, and it couldn’t be left out of any ad. “Big Mac, fillet o’ fish, quarter pounder, french fries…” Earworm planting is a cardinal offense. McDonald’s current slogan, “I’m lovin’ it!” has been etching itself into your brain since 2003.

Sum: I actually have a fondness for this ad. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic yuppie universe in which Cop Rock is a perennial winner of all Best Drama awards. Bankers and joggers, tradesman and minstrels join in the communal joy, welcoming each other with song and dance and showing no class barriers. I’m lovin’ it.