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This Week in Confusing Commercials

Headscratching television campaigns by jcpenney, Beyaz and the American Cancer Society

By / Posted on 04 March 2011

jcpenneyBig brands need a unified vocabulary in the form of campaigns in order for their many advertisements to be instantly recognized as part of a unified whole. Deciding when exactly to unleash such a new campaign onto the consuming public is another very important part of brand recognition. JC Penney (which has apparently rebranded itself “jcpenney”) debuted their Spring ad campaign during the Academy Awards this past weekend. Makes sense, right? jcpenney (man, that’s weird) is all about high-fashion at affordable prices, and the red carpet of the Academy Awards is the most-talked-about fashion runway of the year. Let’s see what they’ve got:

I know that eventually there must be a limit to the combination of ideas that come together for a corporate identity, but can we all agree that it is just sad for jcpenney’s 2011 campaign to look almost exactly like Target’s 2009 campaign? Two years! Too soon! Even beyond the casual fashion photography, Target has owned the combination of red, white, and Helvetica bold for well over a decade. Surely you can do better than this, jcpenney (I will never get used to that). Much like how the current DirectTV commercials only serve to make me think of Netflix, every jcpenney ad now makes me think of shopping at Target. Bad, bad marketing.

And that new logo just makes me wonder what an “enney” is.

BeyazAlso in heavy rotation right now is this new spot for Beyaz. Surely you remember Yaz – the birth control pill that also fought premenstrual dysphoric disorder and featured models talking like they were doctors over cocktails in commercials that looked like scenes from Sex and the City with large bodies of medical disclaimers? Yaz has fallen out of fashion after a catalog of lawsuits were filed claiming the pill provoked life-threatening health problems. As such, Bayer has replaced the controversial Yaz in the market with Beyaz (literally “beyond Yaz”), the exact same formula birth control pill, now with added folate.

The caveat with all drug commercials is the necessity of medical disclaimers, which is perhaps why this Beyaz spot forgoes any dialogue or sound effects in favor of a pantomimed scene behind an unending legal provision. The concept is simple: “It’s good to have choices:”

Message read, loud and clear: babies are expensive, time-consuming, and will suck all the life out of you through a direct line in your teat. Here are all the wonderful things you could do with your life thanks to not having a baby. They even have a stork carrying a sack (symbolically, a baby) approach one of the women with a flutter in its wings and beak as if to say “Hey! Baby here! Get your fresh-hot baby here!” The woman, being hip-and-casual-and-young-and-the-very-picture-of-what-you-want-to-be-isn’t-it(?) hastily laughs off the stork’s offering, shakes her talk-to-the-hand hand as if the stork were the fifth homeless war veteran selling Girl Scout cookies she’s encountered this lunch break, and goes about the rest of her shopping having completely forgotten such an inane interaction even took place.

Most interesting to me are the shots of the woman in the blue shirt-dress with her hair tied up. She seems to be portraying a particular character of Woman that never disappears from pop culture no matter how we complain about it. Early on, she is seen carefully considering her options from the “Significant Other” table only to see her choice snatched out from her fingertips by a more impulsive woman. She watches with dumbfound expression as the object of her affection walks across the floor, absent of any objection whatsoever, suffering in silence. Later (0:42), in a dramatically slowed-down shot, our wallflower is seen bending down to a clearly hard-to-see shelf, expresses some degree of excitement/approval/curiosity towards the displayed item, and reaches just off screen to grab it, the mysterious object of personal satisfaction never to be shared with the public or called back at any other point in the elaborate diorama of 21st Century Western female stereotypes. Seriously, one woman buys a house, another the Eiffel Tower. What does the librarian/barista/waif get that makes her so happy (instead of a baby)?

American Cancer SocietyFinally, there is a distracting and uncomfortable ad campaign all over the airwaves right now from the American Cancer Society. Apparently people have forgotten that Cancer is a thing, so we need to remind them to help fight it. Unlike so many other charity organizations, the ACS decides not to show pictures of starving children or sick puppies in cages, rather to have celebrities awkwardly sing “Happy Birthday” to the camera.

First off, the American Cancer Society services the United States and Puerto Rico, not all of North America, so why is Canadian Celine Dion involved in this at all? (Ricky Martin was born in Puerto Rico, so he gets a pass.) More importantly, all these ads leave me thinking is that these famous singers are not particularly good at singing at all. Either that or “Happy Birthday” is one of those songs that is just impossible to sing well, so cut the guys at your office some slack the next time they’re horribly off-key waiting for a slice of cake. As for the ACS’s campaign, “the Official Sponsor of Birthdays,” it seems to me that sponsoring a loose concept like “birthdays” is only slightly less vague and fruitless than fighting a war on “terror.” At least this campaign has an air of the romantic, but it still causes every audience I’ve watched television with this week to stop what they’re doing and wonder aloud, “whaaaaaat?

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.