Old Navy has always marketed itself in the language of campy, ersatz nostalgia. From its ads to the look of its stores to the name of the chain, everything about Old Navy seemed to be a sort of knowing reference to a bright and carefree Technicolor past, the details of which remained vague. The most recent iteration of this theme has been a series of ads that apparently refer to bygone sitcoms. First came several spots riffing on The Brady Bunch, and a more recent one takes off on, of all things, Green Acres. You can watch the Brady Bunch ads here, here, and here and the Green Acres one here, all via Ads.com.
The ads: The first group of ads portrays “The Rugby Bunch.” Lyrics set to the tune of the famous Brady Bunch theme extol the virtues of Old Navy rugby shirts. (“Here’s the story/ of a shirt named rugby/ that’s available in many styles and types,” etc.) A cast that loosely correlates with the one in the sitcom (mom figure, dad figure, squadron of kids) cavort in overtly fake suburban settings.
The newer ad does the same thing, but in this case to the tune of the theme from Green Acres and with the country/city contrast that was part of that show’s premise. The central product here is painter’s pants. (“Old Navy painters, you’re the pants for me,” etc., concluding with “Old Navy we are there.”)
Morgan Fairchild appears and kinda-sorta sings in all four spots.
Setting up camp. I don’t pretend to understand why it is that The Brady Bunch is part of the pantheon of sitcoms that will clearly never, ever go away. But I accept it. No matter what wild, dazzling future the entertainment conglomerates have planned for us, I fully expect that if I live another 100 years, I’ll still be able to find a rerun of The Brady Bunch, Leave It to Beaver, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, or The Beverly Hillbillies to watch right before I’m canceled. I have no idea whether anyone watches these shows with a proverbial straight face (or indeed if anyone ever did), but clearly one reason they all live on is that people enjoy watching them, or referring to them, with an ironic sort of attitude that is a hybrid of nostalgia for the show’s innocence and a simultaneous mockery of the same thing. Or maybe they don’t enjoy it—it always seemed to me that there was some sort of base national catharsis involved in the popularity of the Celebrity Boxing installment in which millions of people tuned in to see the guy who played Greg Brady get beat up. But they still watch it. The point is, The Brady Bunch is a touchstone.
But … Green Acres? How many people, at this point, even know what Green Acres was about? (Basically a cosmopolitan couple moves from Manhattan to a farm near the country town of Hooterville despite the protests of the socialite wife, played by Eva Gabor. There’s a pig. Hilarity ensues. Theme song lyrics and sound file may be enjoyed here.) Old Navy was described by the Wall Street Journal as having started out as “a hip experiment in discounting.” Sure, Green Acres was a preposterous show, and better material for a bored ironist would be hard to find. But it still seems like kind of a long shot as a hipster reference point.
Teen out. The solution to this riddle is apparently that Old Navy has given up on hipness, or at least on the teenagers who are its traditional arbiters according to ad-think. In its 2001 annual report, parent company the Gap (which has had a lousy last few years) confessed that Old Navy had become “too narrowly focused” on teens, who “helped make the brand famous” but are no longer enough of a customer base. So in the current campaign, it doesn’t really matter if the kids don’t get what the painter’s pants ad is referring to; it’s the boomer-age parents that Old Navy wants to hook.
Nevertheless, there’s a lingering problem in the execution: The ads strike me as pretty grating. Is Morgan Fairchild’s awful “singing” supposed to be funny? And why Morgan Fairchild, anyway? Is she there to get the Flamingo Road demographic? In the end this is a campaign that seems too “clever” for its own good. It’s winking ironically at us—but with both eyes at once.