Monday, March 05, 2012

Overthinking Commercials, 2 (POP!Best!)

What, you thought this blog was going to be nothing but the Star Wars Blogathon? Think again. I've got tons of other pop culture-y stuff to post. (But the Blogathon continues. I'll be posting that later.)

So have you heard the one about how people are too stupid to understand what a "sale" is, or too overwhelmed with life to deal with some coupon inserts?

A while back, JCPenney began running annoying ads of people shrieking hideously in response to opening their mailbox or their magazines, screaming like their very souls had been plucked out of their bodies by a Grim Reaper we could not see.

I found those commercials annoying.

And I didn't understand them, at all, until one day a "news" "story" about the commercials said that they were heralding JCPenney's new (already failed) strategy of not having any more sales.

JCPenney, we were told, was dealing with (a heretofore unknown) problem of consumers being overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the modern shopping experience.

Since the average family spends over $5,000 per year on what can roughly be described as consumer/luxury goods, ("luxury" meaning "non-necessity") per year, and did so even at the height of the recent Second Great Depression, I took issue with the idea that going to the mall is so confusing that people scream in terror at the thought of navigating sales.

But that was not all JCPenney was concerned with: They are, apparently, going to reinvent your entire shopping experience, or at least claim to, not only by dealing with problems that do not exist but by creating procedures that cannot hold up.

Let's look at JCPenney's conception of you, the average consumer, and life in these United States.

Consider again that Western Coupon commercial:

Ellen, opening a newspaper (perhaps the same newspaper every actor reads all the time) for the first time in her life, is familiar with the concept of coupons, but not so familiar that she expected them to be in her newspaper, which is why the coupons flutter to the floor, having been previously unnoticed and therefore flung headlong as Ellen tries to get the news.

And it's not just that coupons exist. It's the the sheer numbers of them! I froze the frame, because I am a scientist, and counted seventeen! Such a plethora of coupons has clearly not ever existed in history.

(Nor have the type of newspaper inserts Ellen has in her newspaper ever existed in history. I imagine they largely automate this now, but when I was a kid, I was a paperboy, and I know that coupon inserts were not created with the newspaper. They are preprinted and shipped to where newspapers are assembled, and then are stuck into the newspaper just prior to delivery, by people, or by machine, and so the inserted "coupons" are large enough to be handled easily, not Fake Dollar Bill Direct Mail-Sized. It would be very time-consuming and expensive to print all of those smaller coupons and then hand-stuff them, whereas printing coupons on foldable fliers that are roughly newspaper sized [as happens in real, non-Ellen/JCPenney life] takes advantage of existing printing presses.)

Stunned by the discovery of these... coupons, is it?, Ellen then travels back in time to when Americans were even less sophisticated than they are now -- a time when reaching into one's pocket meant you were going for a gun (as opposed to going for money; apparently nobody had ever carried their money in their pocket in that town before.)

Here's the thing about that commercial: Ellen imagines (?) a time when there were no coupons -- but that time is clearly not better, in that it smells and people think you are constantly going to shoot them.

I would much rather live in an era where, if someone reaches into their pocket, I assume they're going for a piece of paper entitling them to pay 50 cents less for the detergent, as opposed to a six-shooter.

Aside from making it so that you never have to fear opening your newspaper again, except that it won't because while JCPenney may not print these... coupons, was it?... all the other stores still will, so you will have at most exactly one less coupon in your newspaper, Ellen/JCPenney also improves your life by promising you that they will never ever ever run out of goods to sell you:

JCPenney promises no doorbusting -- no early sales that require you to get up at 5:00 a.m. to save money. But the problem in the modern-day example that leads Ellen to imagine a polygamous 1950s marriage is not that the sale started too early, it's that the goods that were being sold lasted only 2 hours, 2o minutes. Presumably, if the store had opened at 8:00 a.m. (which seems a little early for a typical retailer; Ellen's there at 8:20 but I usually assume most department stores open at 9), all of the shoes would have sold out by 10:20. So what's JCPenney promising? They say "no doorbusting, just great prices all the time," but again, it's not the price that's the problem in that store at 8:20 a.m.; I assume the price is okay because Ellen has gone there to buy something that was on sale. (Ellen, it seems, is not against sales, which makes her an odd spokesperson for JCPenney in this case.)

I think, based on this ad, that if you walk into JCPenney and they don't have what you want, you can sue. That's what they're really promising, right: You won't have to get up early (which is good, because you're probably tired from picking up all those coupons on the floor), and we'll still have the stuff you wanted to buy no matter what time you show up.

(In the 1950s fever dream, I noted that the people were getting at 6 a.m., which in the modern-day real world is the time the sale started. The 1950s people would have been late for the sale anyway.)

Let's do one more, the one that really gets me:

Ellen tries to return a skort.

There's no explanation of why Ellen has a "skort." Was it a gift? Did she buy it, only to then decide she didn't want it? Was she buying it for someone else, only to realize that this other person may not want a skort? Do people wear skorts? Who are these people? Do they feel awkward now that Ellen has made fun of their apparel of choice? Shouldn't they feel awkward, since they wear skorts?

But we don't need an explanation, as we quickly learn. Ellen doesn't want to explain to this man why she has a skort but doesn't want it, and that leads her to ponder how it is that our society ended up in such an unfair system, demanding that you have reasons for doing things.

Note that the man accepts Ellen's reason. That's important. Confronted with "It's... a skort," the man doesn't even hesitate. He's okay with that. He doesn't waste any time asking all those questions I asked, maybe because he's not as thoughtful as I am. But he does ask what on the surface is a reasonable question: Does Ellen have proof that she did not shoplift this skort, or at least that it came from this store?

"Was it always this way?" Ellen muses, wondering whether society has always demanded that you behave in a commercially reasonable manner.

Turns out that the answer to that is yes, it in fact always was this way.

The Western commercial, remember, answered Ellen's always this way question with "No, it wasn't, because back in Olden Times, people used to shoot each other in the face." The answer to the other two questions in the commercials I've chosen here are yes, that's how we've always done it. It's a mixed message JCPenney is sending here: Everything retailers have ever done, and everything they've never done, is wrong. (Somehow, these retailers, and the bewildered shoppers confronted with their mysterious ways, have managed to make a go of it, but that clearly won't last more than the few centuries retail has existed.)

Ellen's remembering proves that it always was this way as in Ancient Rome, where sundials are not required to lay flat even though a sundial stood up on it's edge (0:13 into the commercial), would not work, everyone is required to have a receipt, too, and (it seems) everyone but Ellen does have their receipt.

Seriously, one has to ask at this point how it is Ellen comes into possession of all this stuff without receipts. Especially as, when asked when she bought it, Ellen isn't able to give a straight answer, instead coming up with the kind of evasive response I'd expect from my kids when asked why they weren't home by curfew.

Ellen, though, won't be tied down by Ancient Roman practices that are accepted by everyone and commercially reasonable, because they are also, she points out, ridiculous, and so she leads the crowd in chants of "ridiculous," with the Ancient Romans speaking Ancient Romanese, which sounds a lot like English with a vaguely Italian accent, but it was all for nought because despite Ancient Ellen's AntiReceipt uprising, Western Civilization continued on requiring receipts right up through the Skort Era (2012 A.D.), when JCPenney changed that all by letting you return any item, any time, without a receipt.

We apparently will still need reasons -- but those reasons will not be bars to our returning it, because you can return any item, any time, which, when I saw that ad, caused me to conjure up this scenario:

SCENE: A JCPenneys: We see a serene, gauzy view of a retail department store where it is clear that the bewildering stressful chaos of shopping is no more. Perhaps there are clouds upon which cherubs sit, playing harps. Or free Orange Juliuses. Either way.

Me [holding a pair of jeans, standing at a counter]: I would like to return these jeans.

Employee: Reason?

Me: I have had them for three years now, and am tired of them. Also, they appear to have shrunk considerably and I can no longer button them. Also, I got pizza on them accidentally and it's still there. And I think there is a raccoon in the pocket. And one leg of the pants is actually on fire, if you can see here.

Employee: [hesitates]. I see.

Me: I don't have a receipt. Can I have my money back?

Employee: Um...

Me: You can keep the raccoon. I think the fire will eventually scare him away.

I just thank God that JCPenney has managed to come up with a way to save me from the hellish existence I didn't know I was suffering under. Now, I know that when I go to the mailbox (which I don't do because I have email) I will not be confronted with coupons offering to save me money on something that I'll only just want to return anyway but I will have had to go through the extremely unfair hardship of proving that I bought it, and I can instead get on with paying more for things on an everyday basis, but at least I get to sleep in before I do it.


Grumpy Bulldog, March Madman said...

Um, really, JC Penney isn't going to have a Black Friday sale at 4am? Really? They're going to miss out on what's usually 50% of a retailer's business for the year? Yeah, right.

The no returns thing makes me think of "Garden State" where Peter Sarsgaard raises money by shoplifting knives and then "returning" them to the same store. I guess he'd have a lot of fun at JC Penney now.

I think I'll go take a couple fur coats off the rack or something and then "return" them.

Rusty Webb said...

Wookies! Ah dammit, you did it again.

If I were the customer service rep I'd be suspicious of anyone returning a skort no matter the reason. Who'd ever give one of those up?

Actually, I don't know what that is.

Andrew Leon said...

JC Penny had coupons? I don't think I've ever seen a JC Penny coupon. I think they just did away with something they never offered to begin with.