Advertising / Television

Fair and Really Really Square

J.C. Penney's New Logo

I hope their design team was well paid for this one...

Forget Wal-Mart and its soul-crushing ways, there is a new target for your consumer rage…or at least mine.

J.C. Penney recently unveiled a new advertising/public relations campaign designed – in theory – to make them seem more customer friendly. No-questions-asked returns, the elimination of coupons, and a supposed move away from “sale” pricing. Also, prices that don’t end in “9.” Because that’s important. This positively “radical” shift in philosophy falls under an almost Rooseveltian motto: Fair and Square.

These changes have been accompanied by some truly obnoxious commercials featuring barely-related metaphors. In one, two siblings are about to play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” The girl spins her blindfolded brother around and around and around…and around…until he falls over, with the line “No more making your head spin – Return any item any time.” The set-up is soooo long and the payoff is so weak that it’s hard to see how this one made it to filming, let alone on the air. Besides…Pin the Tail on the Donkey in the 21st century? Really?

J.C. Penney's Auctioneer

Oh yes, I'll shop in your stores as long as I get to see more of this!

Another TV spot turns my stomach right from the get-go: The commercial begins zoomed-in on a chubby, mustachioed auctioneer’s mouth and gradually zooms out as he counts down, not up. “No more pricing games – Just great prices from the start.” I have never wanted to be that close to an auctioneer’s mouth, and I certainly never though a company would try to sell me something by putting me there.

There’s another one about jumping through hoops and a “shell game” with transparent cups, but they pretty much repeat the messages of the other commercials. “J.C. Penney isn’t trying to screw you! Really we aren’t!” All of these commercials are done in a cutesy, minimalist, almost retro style that would seem to appeal to a younger crowd, but the content seems aimed at an older audience, what with the archaic references and set-ups.

And I guess these spots might just appeal to someone, but that someone isn’t me; I found them abhorrent. I even briefly considered linking to the commercials on YouTube here, but I realized I’d just be advertising for J.C. Penney, which I DO NOT WANT.

As gawd-awful as those commercials were, they still left me unprepared for the advertising blitz J.C. Penney leveled on the 84th Academy Awards. Ellen Degeneres – who was a J.C. Penney employee once upon a time – is revealed as the new spokeswoman and helms a slate of commercials that make “Auctioneer” look appealing by comparison. The set-up for all of them is “Was it always like this?” and then Ellen goes back in time and finds out that, yes, it was always like this. THIS HAPPENS FOUR FUCKING TIMES.

Ellen Degeneres for J.C. Penney

Were commercials always this irritating?

I should mention that this isn’t really Ellen’s fault. I’ve never been one of her biggest fans, but she does the best with the very little she’s given. Besides, I can’t really blame someone who clearly was offered a truckload of money to shoot five commercials. Maybe she should have asked “These are going to be good, right?” before she signed the contract, but eh. My ire is directed squarely (ha!) at J.C. Penney, not only because their commercials make me want to stab people both in the present AND in the past, but because their ultra-repetitive campaign somehow manages to be scattershot, sending mixed messages to some unknown demographic.

I mean, the commercials are nostalgic. Both the Retro ones and the Ellen ones. They show “better times” when we supposedly had “better values.” This would, of course, appeal to old people. The promise of bargains and simpler sales would also seem to be targeting an older audience. But the style of the Retro commercials and the casting of a lesbian as a spokeswoman speaks more to the younger crowd. And even when J.C. Penney seems nostalgic, they end up saying, “But we’re gonna change our long-held ways! We’re better than decades of marketing!” Catnip to hip cats. They are trying desperately to appeal to both groups at once…by setting them against one another. It is as ineffective as it is annoying, and the message of “no more coupons” or whatever else gets lost in the shuffle.

By the end of the Oscars, I was fully ready to launch a boycott of J.C. Penney. A few days later with a cooler head…I still want to boycott J.C. Penney. It seems only fair.

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