The Middlebrow


Discount retail goes to The New Yorker.

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The reassuring air of Target pomposity 
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The reassuring air of Target pomposity

Would Eustace Tilley shop at Target? * That is the pressing question we consider this week—the week Target has purchased every advertisement in The New Yorker. At first glance, Target and The New Yorker seem like an odd match. (The last time Target pulled off the buy-every-ad gimmick, it was the sole sponsor of an issue of People.) Only recently did the “Bloomingdale’s of the discount industry” vanquish Wal-Mart and Kmart to win the hearts and minds of the middlebrow. Moreover, when compared to the modish boutiques that usually advertise in the New Yorker, Target looks rather vulgar; there is no sign at the entrance of Louis Vuitton, for example, that reads “Welcome to Low Prices.” But let’s say the New Yorker ads work their magic on our Mr. Tilley. He resolves to spend an afternoon at Target to see what all the fuss is about. He screws in his monocle, presses shoe to linoleum, and pushes forward into the interior. What will he find?

First off, a reassuring aroma of pomposity. Just like Louis Vuitton, Target has long viewed itself as floating above the rabble. It was founded in 1962 by the Dayton brothers, a family of Minnesotadepartment-store magnates, who feared that upstart discounters would move into the Twin Cities and undercut them. Douglas Dayton scoffed at those who would “trumpet democratic price cuts on cheap merchandise”—i.e., Sam Walton, who was founding his Wal-Mart empire down the road in Arkansas. The Target chain, the Daytons decided, would exude the mild pretension of a low-end department store rather than the folksiness of a high-end dime store. (The now-famous “Tar-zhay” pun, emphasizing Target’s exalted place in the discount world, dates back to the store’s founding in1962.) By the mid-1980s, Target executives had begun describing their market niche in the press as “upscale discount.”

Target was a financial marvel, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it began to amass cultural capital. At the behest of marketing head John Pellegrene, Target courted high-end designers to class up the stock. Of the dozens that would enlist (Isaac Mizrahi, Mossimo Giannulli, etc.), the biggest “get” was the postmodernarchitect Michael Graves, who consented to design a line of furnishings and kitchen gadgets in 1999. “This is not blessing towels,” said Graves, casting a wry eye at Martha Stewart, who had lent her imprimatur to accessories over at Kmart. Graves’ signature teapot, selling at $40, arrived at a propitious cultural moment—when the middlebrow masses, the kind of people who shopped Target, began to take a new interest in design. Like Starbucks (designed coffee houses) and Nokia(cell phones), the Graves teapot placed Target on the leading edge of the movement. By the turn of the century, Target had become an innovator, a tastemaker: Wal-Mart with better lights and better style.

As Target crept into the Northeast, it also needed to retouch its public face. Early TV spots had featured Jonathan Winters in drag, lampooning Target’s loyal clientele. Such self-deprecation may have worked in the Midwest, but it was a poor fit for New York, where Target needed to wise up to lure urban sophisticates—to convince them that buying retail was an indulgence best left to the 1980s. To that end, Target unveiled two clever ad campaigns: a “C’est Target” line (again punning on the name) and another that featured elegant models regarding consumer goods like lampshades. Sarah Jessica Parker (who raved about Target pajamas on Late Night) and Camryn Manheim (who wore Target earrings to the Emmy Awards) added celebrity benedictions. As Target prepared to open its first store in metro New York in 1997, its image became synonymous with inexpensive indulgence. In a Christmas photo op, Michael Bloomberg was seen exiting a local Target clutching a George Foreman grill and a cheese grater, gifts that would surely please one of the gardeners at Gracie Mansion.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Target’s blossoming—making discount acceptable for the rich and famous, and, hence, everyone else. But the appeal Target holds in the minds of the upper crust does not end there. The rich (at least in Manhattan) profess to visit Target because of its social progressivism. Target, they insist, is a more enlightened corporate behemoth. Viewed through the Upper West Side prism in which “enlightened” equals “liberal,” there is some truth to this contention. Sam Walton’s heirs donate to the GOP, while Target scion Mark Dayton serves as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate. But because Target isn’t as large as Wal-Mart means certain bugaboos (a nonunion shop, part-time workers without benefits) are more easily overlooked.

Others insist that Target infatuation is more ineffable. In 2003, Laura Rowley, a TV producer, published a rapturous book called On Target: How the World’s Hottest Retailer Hit the Bull’s-Eye. Writing between dabs on the forehead with a wet washcloth, Rowley speaks of an “inchoate longing” to visit her peppermint-striped paradise. “The external experience is about shopping,” she writes. “The internal, emotional experience is about being validated, and treated with respect.” Self-worth to the front, please! To hear Rowley tell it, she isn’t the only Manhattan goddess who has fallen hard for Target. Rowley’s wealthy gal pals regale her with their own “heated declarations” of Target love. “I take the subway to get out there,” says one. “Then if I buy too much stuff, I call a car service to pick me up at the store.” Right, she’ll be the one out front, wearing cashmere gloves and clutching a WeedEater.

If anything should spoil the good feelings the elite have for Target, it is the store itself. It would come as small comfort to Eustace Tilley that Target has a brighter ambience than Kmart or Wal-Mart—that, he might remark dryly, is grading on a curve. For all the to-do about Target’s high-wattage lighting—subject of decades of adoring press coverage—at the Brooklyn location, it only serves to highlight snaking lines at the Customer Service desk. As for Tilley, he might take an interest in the in-store Starbucks (located next to the in-store Pizza Hut Express). Or he might observe the employees’ unusual afternoon ritual, in which carts full of returned merchandise are arranged to form a circle, with the employees in the middle, like elephants protecting their young.

No, sir, inchoate longings or not, he won’t rush back here anytime soon. Well, perhaps around Christmas to pick up something for the gardener. One more drawback, sport, while we’re at it. Like a lot of new-money arrivistes, Target can make grand gestures, but it gets the details wrong. If Tilley were to have searched the magazine rack of the Brooklyn store on Monday, he would have found People, Time,andNew York magazine. And not a single copy of The New Yorker.

Correction, Aug. 22, 2005: In the original version of this article, the name “Eustace Tilley” was misspelled. Return to the article.