Ad Report Card: Gap vs. Old Navy

Gap Inc. desperately needs a buzz infusion. It seems like ages since the company has had anything but bad news to report. Maybe this is why the company has lately blitzed the airwaves with two sets of ads, one for the flagship Gap chain and one for the firm’s Old Navy stores. But will either campaign generate enough heat to restore the company to its formerly fast-growing ways? And which one seems more promising? To see the Old Navy ads, go here. For the Gap commercials, go here and click “enter,” and links to the ads will scroll by in a separate window.

In this corner, Old Navy: Discount-focused Old Navy has enlisted Molly Sims as its spokesmodel; she’s the host of MTV’s House of Style, which I admit I didn’t even realize was still on the air. Anyway, the ad I see most often features Molly in a miniskirt. The action consists of several models strutting around a colorful set (in miniskirts) to the tune of “Keep It Comin’ Love,” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Molly adds the following comments: “When it comes to skirts, make mine a mini. A little less skirt, a lot more leg. More leg, less money. You gotta get this look. Only … at Old Navy.” In between these pronouncements, she dances and tosses her golden mane. Another ad for “Ultra Low Rise” pants is similar; this time Molly says, “Hips have never looked hotter,” and, painfully, “The only thing lower is the price!” Finally, in a spot for men’s track jackets, we see a group of young guys dancing around the same setting. “Trust me guys,” says Molly. “You gotta get this look.”

And in this corner, the Gap: In this campaign, the Gap has adopted a back-to-basics theme, linking the idea of “first love” with denim, a core Gap product. In a spot called “Scratch,” three DJs (two guys and one woman, who is identified as “Shannyn S., star of A Knight’s Tale“) manipulate turntables for a while in a big, empty room. Close-up of Shannon: “My first love? Boys who scratch.” The words “Gap” and “Denim” zoom by. In “Old, Old School,” the camera pans around the denimed body of Nikka Costa as she sings a cappella. “My first love? The old, old school,” she says. In “Girl,” Juliette Lewis gyrates (with surprising stiffness) to “Digital Love,” by Daft Punk. Finally, in “Love,” Will Ferrell impersonates Neil Diamond, singing “Forever in Blue Jeans.” At the end he says, “My first love? Love on the rocks.”

The winner? Well, it’s a tough call because both campaigns are incredibly lame. Let’s start with Old Navy. “Keep It Comin’ Love”? Is that the best they could do? Was that the only song left from the disco era that hadn’t already been “rediscovered” to death? Isn’t Old Navy supposed to be ahead of the curve on that sort of thing? (Or maybe we’ve now done a complete lap, and this is nostalgia once removed—meant to remind us of the last round of ‘70s disco songs popping up in movies and ads.) In the spots featuring women, the ad-makers picked models who would look good in anything, but something about the clothes, the set, and the music delivers a message more like “cheap” than “bargain.” In the ad with the boys, they didn’t even get good models—who wants to dress like these fools? They look like they just went shopping at Young Chump, not Old Navy. These ads are so rote, they look they were assembled out of some official youth culture handbook—from five years ago. As Rosie Perez said in Do the Right Thing, “You are so tired.”

The Gap ads are apparently directed by the same guy who did the famous Nike “Freestyle” spot, easily the best commercial of the past year. But these ads have the feel of four different attempts to find a suitable style; instead of picking one and making it better, the Gap seems to be trying four directions at once. The weirdest entry is Will Farrell, often a funny guy, doing his Neil Diamond turn. Neil Diamond in a denim jacket? Please. Is the Gap making fun of him? Paying homage? Some of each? I have bad news: Even Neil Diamond seems a lot cooler than the Gap these days. And these ads aren’t helping.

I guess that on the whole I find the Gap spots slightly less embarrassing in their blandness, so I’d give them the edge in this sorry contest. But the problem with both campaigns is that they actually reinforce the problem with the Gap’s properties in general—they’re defined by a lack of surprise, seeming incredibly familiar from the second we see them. They’re played out. Somewhere I read the recent comment of a young mall shopper, saying that she didn’t have a problem with the Gap, but she already had all the Gap clothes she needs. If the clothing chain wants to get everyone’s attention again, it’s time to do something different.