Holiday Campaigns Bring On the Humor To Reassure Consumers

How worried are retailers that a crisis in consumer confidence could cast a pall on Christmas shopping?

One national chain that has been in business since 1902 plans to devote part of its holiday campaign to reassuring shoppers about the redeemability of its gift cards, much the same way that banks have run ads focused on the safety of a depositor’s savings.


Because so many retailers have been going bankrupt and not honoring gift cards, “we’re going to be more aggressive in our gift-card messaging around the idea that you know J. C. Penney will be around, and the cards are good as gold,” said Michael Boylson, chief marketing officer at the J. C. Penney Company in Plano, Tex., which will start the holiday campaign on Friday. Although the declarations that “you can feel good about giving a J. C. Penney gift card” will be only a small part of the campaign, Mr. Boylson said, they reflect the reality that “the whole economic uncertainty is a wild card” as retailers approach the Christmas shopping season.

Another national chain, Sears Roebuck, is offering consumers an altruistic incentive to buy and use gift cards. The Sears Holdings Management Corporation will donate $1 to an organization, Rebuilding Together, for each gift card bought at a Sears store, up to $100,000, and donate an additional $250,000 to Rebuilding Together, as well as another $250,000 to the U.S.O., “as a thank you for all of your Sears card purchases,” according to magazine ads.

Sears and Penney are joining a lengthening list of retailers whose holiday advertising will reflect the cautious mood among consumers as data indicate spending is slowing and store revenue is falling. Best Buy shocked Wall Street when it predicted sales declines for the period that includes Christmas.

Sales last month in Penney stores open more than a year, a closely watched indicator, fell 13 percent compared with October 2007.

“Our customers are clearly feeling the pressure,” Mr. Boylson said, so the campaign will seek to convey that by buying at Penney, “you can give gifts you’re proud of at a price you can afford.”

One way the campaign intends to communicate that message will be to alternate warm and fuzzy image ads, which carry the theme “Feel the joy of giving. Every day matters,” with ads devoted to sales and other promotions, which carry the theme “Style. Quality. Price matters. Every day matters.” The campaign is being created by Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, part of the Publicis Groupe.

The ads will play up special low prices rather than percentages off regular prices, Mr. Boylson said, because “50 percent off is almost the price of entry” in the current retail environment.

Besides, he added, specific prices are less confusing to shoppers, giving an example of a recent visit to a Penney store: “I ran into a customer who wanted to know how much a coat on a rack was. I told her it was 40 percent off, and she replied, ‘I don’t know if I have “40 percent off” in my pocket, but I know I have 49.99 in my pocket.’ ”

The Penney campaign includes commercials on television and in movie theaters, mobile marketing, ads online, special content on the company Web site, direct mail and the annual Christmas catalog.

“It’s the craziest time for retail I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in retail 30-plus years,” said Bob Thacker, senior vice president for marketing and advertising at OfficeMax in Naperville, Ill. His company, for the third consecutive year, will sponsor a whimsical online campaign on a Web site.

“It’s not like we’re providing Fred and Ginger in the Depression,” Mr. Thacker said, referring to the Astaire-Rogers musicals that entertained moviegoers in the 1930s, but “if there was ever a need for frivolity, for escape, this is a place to find it.”

The 2008 version of Elf Yourself, scheduled to go live on Sunday, is being created by the Spiridellis brothers, Evan and Gregg, whose Internet media company, JibJab, specializes in offbeat video clips and customizable greetings.

Visitors to the Web site will be able to create elfin characters who dance to disco, country and other tunes. New this year, for $3.99, will be the opportunity to download videos to desktops or create printed greeting cards and customized photo gifts like ornaments and mouse pads.

Another retailer looking on the brighter side is the Gap division of Gap Inc. , which is bringing out a campaign featuring celebrities in brightly colored outfits.

The campaign includes a section of the Gap Web site, which is to go live on Thursday, presenting the stars in video clips performing remixed versions of classic holiday songs.

“As everything progressed, we decided something lighter in tone would be fitting for the times,” said Trey Laird, president and creative director at Laird & Partners in New York, the Gap agency.

“Definitely, it’s going to be promotional out there,” Mr. Laird said, using the retail term for a climate in which price-cutting predominates, “but you’ve got to engage people, too, because there’s so many promotions out there.”

Gap will climb aboard that bandwagon with a Gap Movie Card promotion for filmgoers at 1,000 theaters owned by chains like AMC, Cinemark and Regal. The cards, to be given free to ticket buyers, will be good for 15 percent or 20 percent off merchandise at Gap stores.

The celebrities in the Gap campaign include Jon Hamm of “Mad Men,” the TV series about advertising in the 1960s, with his girlfriend, the actress Jennifer Westfeldt; cast members of “Saturday Night Live”; the Dixie Chicks; actors like Jason Bateman, Jason Biggs, Freddy Rodriguez and Rainn Wilson; and actresses like Jennifer Hudson, Milla Jovovich and Mary-Louise Parker.

“It’s going to be a tough season for everyone,” said Kimberly Grabel, senior vice president for marketing at the Saks Fifth Avenue unit of Saks.

The Saks holiday campaign will be focused on merchandise “from the pinnacle of luxury to very affordable luxury,” Ms. Grabel said, “items that are exclusive to us in a range of price points.”

And for a bit of whimsy, the Saks holiday catalog will offer readers a chance to solve typographic puzzles for fun rather than prizes.

For example, what is the answer to a puzzle in which the word “less” is printed much, much larger than the word “more”?

“Less is more,” according to the catalog, a thought that Saks and other retailers undoubtedly hope will come true for the holiday season.