THE BLOG
09/09/2014 04:18 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

The Gap's Strange New Ad Campaign

Valentin Casarsa via Getty Images

There is so much poor branding in the world that it shouldn't surprise us. Much of it is budget-constrained or springs out an antiquated notion of what branding is; in other words, that a brand is a customer-facing image rather than a three-sided beast that is as much about the capital markets and the internal culture of a company as it is about pretty pictures on the Super Bowl. Still, you'd think that a major consumer brand would have an army of brand strategists that wouldn't make these mistakes. You would be wrong.

Dress Normal: That's the new slogan for the Gap. Here's Gap's Global CMO Seth Farbman explaining it: "What I wanted, because this is Gap, was positive anxiety. "When you're dressing normal, you're really your truest and most confident and authentic self."

Ad agencies are notable for their skewered logic but the new Gap is particularly fascinating because of the way it attempts to build a semiotic grid about authenticity and self-knowledge out of images and tag lines that actively contradict that. "There's certainly a long tradition at Gap that people come first and that the clothes are there to make you feel like your best self, and we've been unapologetic about that for years," Farbman said in a telephone interview with BuzzFeed. "'Dress Normal' is a reinforcement of that idea."

Really? I've always associated the word "normal" when used within an imperative statement ("act normal," "be normal") with a 50s era parent hectoring their child to stop listening to the Doors or to stop reading James Baldwin. But perhaps I've misconstrued the Gap. Here's Farbman again: "We wanted it absolutely to be a provocation -- what does 'Dress Normal' mean to each individual? I think that certainly when it's paired with photography and paired with some of the headlines, people will understand that it's about dressing the way you want to."

I'm still not convinced and, worse, it points out just how vapid modern advertising looks in today's world. In the age of user-generated content, we've come to expect a little more nuance and stealth from our product marketers; interaction as opposed to interruption. Big data has made it possible for advertisers to send us messaging that seems uncannily knowing about our moods and tastes. As a brand consultant, it may seem like heresy but the old-fashioned, contrived multi-channel advertising campaign with its vague tagline seems like a lumbering dinosaur -- the big corporation trying to manufacture desire out of thin air. Except now I don't even understand the desire. The semiotics are empty which may reflect the way big-time brands read consumers today.

The Gap's average customer is 39 years old but their desired generation is young: "The millennial generation is one of the most connected, said Farbman, "the most powerful in terms of buying ability and buying power, and one of the most optimistic generations we've seen, well, since 1969 when Gap was started. We decided to focus on this generation, not ignoring our strength of being a cross-generational brand, but recognizing that, if we got it right with this group, we would get a halo up. A 39-year-old customer takes cues from the millennial generation. So that meant a completely different view about how we market, how we design our product."

So did they get it right? Back in October, I wrote a long piece about Millennials and cited a Boston Consulting Group/ Barkley and Service Management Group study of 4,000 Millennials (ages 16 to 34) and 1,000 non-Millennials (ages 35 to 74) in the United States. Much of what they found wasn't surprising but it did suggest what makes Millennials interesting, even moving: their hunger for connection and shared experience, their feelings of stewardship towards the planet and their belief in collective action. The point BCG was making was compelling: The Millennials just may be an improvement over the Xers or the Boomers in terms of civic engagement. One of the early entrants in Millennial book category, Millennials Rising by William Strauss and Neil Howe, made this same pronouncement all the way back in 2000: "Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged. Strauss and Howe's futurism promised us the most diverse generation (one in five has an immigrant parent) and the most global in their outlook."

I can only surmise how the Gap went from this to the current campaign. Here's how companies generally make decisions about their brands: they do a brand audit which consists of a brand inventory (how it's currently being marketed) and a brand exploratory (focus groups and surveys on what the brand means). Clearly, based on its audit, the Gap was feeling like it had grown a little musty. So, what do companies do when they want to strengthen their brands? They look at all the touchstones of a great brand -- things like relevancy, positioning, value perception, brand portfolio, authenticity, differentiation, consistency, presence and understanding.

The most interesting of these in terms of the Gap may be relevance. In his article "The Brand Report Card," for the Harvard Business Review, Kevin Lane Keller talks about how a brand's relevance is formed by two things: the quality of the product; and the intangibles that surround the product. These include user imagery (the type of person who use the brand); usage imagery (situation where the brand is used); the feeling the brand elicits (warm, etc.); and the type of relationship with the customer (committed, casual). The basic formula to be relevant is to stay on the leading edge in terms of product and to tweak the intangibles to fit the times.

And that's what the Gap appears to have done. I'm sure they still make a fine product but everything else is in transition. In a series of print ads shot by Glen Luchford, we see celebrities, including Anjelica Huston, Elisabeth Moss, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone and Zosia Mamet in "relatable moments" which elevate the idea of dress normal," according to Wieden & Kennedy Creative Director Stuart Jennings. But what we see looks staid and uninflected to my eyes. Sure, the clothes have been recessed but the models looks similarly recessive. They look neither happy nor focused - just affectless. And the tagline feels like a censure rather than an exhortation.

The TV ads, directed by the superb director, David Fincher, fare better because they're in textured black and white and so evoke the wonderful Guess commercials of the 1980s but they're similarly opaque, even hollowed out. One ad shows a young woman watching herself in a mirror as she kisses her boyfriend. The slogan at the end reads "Dress Like No One's Watching." But that's a tagline about submitting to the overwhelming current of life, about losing one's self-consciousness. Which is the opposite of what the ad shows us which is a solipsistic model who is alienated from one of life's most singular experiences because she is too busy regarding her own image.

It's unfair, of course, to single out the Gap. They are a firm that has given us extraordinary campaigns in the past: remember this Spike Lee print ad from 1989? That was part of a landmark campaign called "Individual of Style" that featured portraits of everyone from Miles Davis to Bryan Ferry, Tony Kushner, Timothy Leary, and Marianne Faithful. The portraits were shot by the likes of Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, and Brigitte Lacombe. It was moody, emotional and full of associative power. We were compelled to study the faces of these people who had shaped our culture, who were indices of our own lives. Apple essentially lifted the idea for its Think Different campaign, using archival photos instead.

The curious thing is that none of those people were "normal." They were rabble rousers, freaks and oddities who reveled in their idiosyncrasies. In telling us to Dress Normal to assert our true selves, The Gap has managed to create what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called "immanent reversal" where things become their opposite (Enlightenment become control, culture becomes the culture industry). Baudrillard (who influenced the Warchowski brothers to write the Matrix films) worried about the destruction and disappearance of the real in the age of information and the reign of illusion and appearance (what he called simulacra). Truth and reality would become illusions, he claimed. As we stare at the Gap billboards, one wonders whether what we are witnessing is this -- the perfect simulacra of being your truest and most confident and authentic self.