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151. Ads of the Week: American Living?

jcpenney.jpgSometimes the ad of the week is for being good. Sometimes it’s for being bad. This week it’s for being both. If you watched the Oscars, it was difficult to miss the Americana-inspired, patriotic, small-town feel of JCPenney’s new clothing line: American Living. The spots are beautiful actually, the music home-spun. (On one spot Allison Krauss and Robert Plant sing “Killing the Blues.”) And the feel is pefect for a line of clothing made right here in America by Americans. You can view two of the spots at the bottom of this entry. The logo (seen above) is an honest-to-God American eagle grasping an American flag. There’s only one problem: the clothing is made in China. (Look closely at the tag detail and shop grab that I highlighted.)



I guess the marketing department and the agency responsible didn’t think that Chinese Living and beautiful shots of rural Chinese textile mills would separate US consumers from their discretionary income. (Go figure.) Now, don’t get me wrong. Free-trade is great. But global marketplace and international trade/political issues aside, this is irresponsible marketing and one reason why, despite being an advertising art director, there are days when I really hate advertising. It’s playing off an emotional nationalism that is a completely fabricated façade. It’s condescending to think that consumers will not see through this. AND it’s cowardly of both the company and the ad agency to not, I don’t know, decide to actually manufacture the clothing line in America (given its name and all.) Then, it could have been an authentic appeal to consumers for well-made, probably a bit more expensive, American goods. Then, the well-crafted advertising and beautifully executed marketing would be more than just another example of what is wrong with advertising. Sometimes ad agencies lie, mislead, and purposely ignore product attributes and communicate falsely in order to move product. Everyone from the company’s big wigs, to the agency’s strategic and creative teams, down to the fashion/apparel designers (Ralph Lauren) should be held responsible for this ridiculous and misplaced patriotic appeal. If nothing else, just don’t call the clothing line, American Living and don’t try to showcase what is good about this country when you really don’t care enough to do something to support it – like opening a new textile plant here in the states, a la American Apparel. JC Penney is a company that I find myself rooting for to make a comeback. I think that’s because when I was a kid it was one of the few stores that was close enough, and from which I could afford school clothes – that were not Goodwill. This campaign is truly shameless. It’s frustrating. It’s deceitful. It’s wrong. Below is a grab from their website. Tractor and grandparents included.


Some details.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent AdAge article by Natalie Zmuda, published on February 18, 2008: “NEW YORK ( -- JC Penney's new brand American Living, created by Polo Ralph Lauren's Global Brand Concepts division, will get a glitzy introduction on the Oscars and is promised to be the biggest marketing initiative in the company's history...” Here’s a link to Penney’s press release. And Penney Chief Executive Myron “Mike” Ullman said American Living products could mark the largest single introduction of a brand in retail history. I guess they couldn’t have spent 1 Billion dollars supporting American Living by supporting an actual American job – that would have been too sincere. Or again, simply base the naming and marketing strategy on something that is true. Here’s “Mike’s” address – I suggest writing him a letter:

Mike Ullman, III
Chief Executive Officer
J.C. Penney, Inc.
6501 Legacy Drive
Plano, TX 54024

OR contact their press folks (which I will do.)
JCPenney Corporate Communications
Investor and Business Inquiries
Rebecca Winter or Kate Parkhouse, 972-431-3400


JCPenney Brand Publicity
Fashion and Home
Merianne Roth, 972-431-2317

In her book Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity, Anne Elizabeth Moore goes into similar issues with American Girl, the company that makes those ridiculously expensive dolls. Though, I’m not a fan of everything she says or how she says it – I think anyone in the communication industry should be sensitive to some of the points she brings up. Integrity in marketing is not just something you try to do – you HAVE to do it. Great brands are also the most honest. Remember ad folks - you're supposed to be using your talents for good.

Take a look at two of these gooshy samples of faux-patriotism and false-nationalism: It's a real shame too, because I would have been proud to have done these myself were they communicating an authentic message instead of a lie.

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References (19)

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Reader Comments (9)

I agree with you "'re supposed to be using your talents for good." What kind the person (people) approved the scene where the girl is stepping on the cake? Why that is funny? What kind the message are they giving to the young people? Is it okay to be a brat, ingrate, selfish, and so on?
It is so disappointing!
February 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRosalina Simpson
cake is to be eaten. not stepped on.
February 27, 2008 | Registered Commenterjj
Boy, Jason, you really have struck a chord (E major, it's very American), using my talent for good has been a real struggle throughout my career. I used to say, "give me a product and I'd sell it", but nowadays, with a more mature and holistic look at things, it's beginning to get tough. I try to look at it, albeit with a thick wool jacket over my eyes, as it's my job - and try not to create anything that is, well, evil. Now, I got to get back to this "Paycheck poker" banner for the casino.
February 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Ippolito
I sat on my sofa reading the newspaper as an ad with interesting music came on. I looked up. It turns out it was Alison Krause & Robert Plant singing about leaves falling like amber or something. But what I soon saw was a shocking image that both irritated and nauseated me, so I had to look it up.

While researching "new J.C. Penney American Living ads + girl stepping on cake", I came across this website. I'm glad others share my concern with the girl stepping on the cake. Perhaps it is a cultural tradition I missed in my relatively normal Massachusetts upbringing nearly a half-century ago. Perhaps it is a new tradition being pushed by cultural radicals to help increase sales of cake mix and red galoshes, the very industries in which they hold massive stock options? Perhaps it is a tradition created by the (m)ad men to foist a new "everything goes" philosophy on we the people? Who the hell knows. All I know for certain is that each multi-million dollar second of each ad we see is there for a reason. I would be interested in picking the brains of the(m)ad people who came up with this one.

A crowd of mostly adult partygoers cheering on the cake-stepping party girl conveys a Romanesque ethos of debauchery and wastefulness that particularly grates in a time of a contracting economy. Who wants to eat a cake after some spoiled Shirley Termple lookalike has just stepped on it, regardless of how clean she kept the soles of her red galoshes?

The second ad has a weird dreamlike quality, since very few kids exploring the woods actually find a fully-made overly-comfy bed outfitted with the latest Ralph Lauren bedding. As a matter of fact, these are the only kids who ever have. The theft of a sheet being dragged through the woods and the dirty-pawed dog that jumps off the bed to follow the kids seem to be calcuilated to either piss people off (those with rigid upbringings filled with rules and standards and stern mothers that would punish us for doing the very same things these brats do in the ad), or causing pleasure in those to whom rules mean nothing. "Oh, it's just an ad", some may say. Sometimes we want to have our ads make sense, I say.

Despite living in a time of Colbert-type satirical truthiness in which the many are fooled by the few, some of us who have been around a while might find that these ads reek of spoiled, overpaid, out-of-touch writers impressed with their cleverness, hipness, and detachment from the real world of stern parents, rules, standards and morals. Moral relativism would have us believe they are just ads..."enjoy them for what they are...let them wash over your brain and wash it free of worry"

I'm over it now.
March 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkevin
All I can say is you guys need to get a life. Complaining about the cake, and bed is ridiculous. I do agree with the original poster, that the AL clothing line really does misrepresent itself by the made in China label.
On a side note, I happened to live in the little town the ads were shot it. I was the person who arranged the band members for the shot. They are actual band members from our local band, and I am the director. Where else, but in America, can a small rural town in Virginia (Kilmarnock) give 5 teenagers the opportunity to make it in a high profile commercial. These kids were surprised, and elated by their inclusion, and if I do say so myself, they were awesome. Way to go Lancaster High School Band, and Ralph Loren. It goes hand in hand.
April 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBand Man
Very cool that they let in some local teens on the fun, and yes they were good. I'd love this campaign if the clothing was as american as their ads, but that's the difference between propaganda and communication - truth.
May 11, 2008 | Registered Commenterjj
Well folks, isn't advertising an illusion?
a fantasy?
June 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertinsleberry hound
Sure, advertising can have a fantasy element, especially with things that are understood. (Beer making you successful with the ladies - we all know that's not true, but they still use it b/c it leads to humorous scenarios.) There's nothing wrong with the illusion, until it blurs into a lie. A lie that's planned and strategically implemented to fool the consumer. Good advertising does not do this. Most people, within a reasonable doubt, would not expect a beer to make them more charming in life. But a lot of people, would be reasonable to assume this clothing is made in the United States, given the imagery and music and theme and name and... and then be more inclined to buy it. The illusion in this case is intended to play off of people's emotions in a way that you would never do to someone else using common courtesy. Why should a brand or company act any differently than a well-behaved human being?
June 24, 2008 | Registered Commenterjj
I recently found out American Living is supporting China skinning live animals. Yes, I was shocked, in Penny's also. American living has their new line of coats out, all with fur collars. From Dogs Cats Raccoon Dogs being skinned alive. MADE IN CHINA. The American Living video with the children and dog, MISLEADING! I will tell everyone that AMERICAN LIVING SKINS LIVE ANIMALS FOR THEIR FUR, to put on a collar. You should hear these helpless animal cries. All for a coat collar!! American Living you are a disgrace.
September 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRose

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