Andy Williams vs. Sir Mix-A-Lot

It’s back-to-school time which means more ads for back-to-school “gear”. (We didn’t have “gear” when I was a kid, we had “supplies”.)

My fondest memory of back to school shopping was one year when we came home late from a vacation on the night before school started. We had to go into the “Convenient Mart” in the rougher part of town and get pencils, paper, and the obligatory box of Kleenex that wasn’t covered under the school’s budget. I’m not sure that Convenient ran any back to school advertising since I was not into deciphering marketing when I was 8. But, now I’m older and the back-to-school campaigns of two major retailers have caught my eye…

The first campaign is JC Penny. If you haven’t seen this, it’s a bunch of pre-pubescents dancing to the 1991 hit “The Choice is Yours” by Black Sheep. Let’s listen in…

You can get with this, or you can get with that.
You can get with this, or you can get with that.
You can get with this, or you can get with that.
I think you’ll get with this, for this is where it’s at.

(Deep, huh?) At the end of the spot, a cartoonish DJ who is responsible for spreading all of this “funk” appears followed by the JC Penny logo.

1991 was 14 years ago. When this song was popular, all these dancing kids weren’t even born (or “not even a glimmer in their daddy’s eye” as we would say in the South). It’s fun to imagine what might have gone on in the JC Penny nerve center to create this campaign…

A bunch of old white men are sitting around the JC Penny corporate table asking “what do the youngsters like these days?” After numerous discussions involving Elvis, Leif Garrett, and breakdancing, the board reaches a consensus that the kids just love that newfangled rap music. The idea is sent to the creative department where some late 20-somethings and early 30-somethings dig throughout their teen music collections and come up with a Black Sheep CD. The rest is history.

Target also has launched a major back-to-school campaign using 90’s hip hop with a remix of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. Again, let’s listen in…

So ladies, if the butt is round…
And you want a triple X throwdown…
Dial 1-900-MIXALOT and kick them nasty thoughts…
Baby got back.

And kids, don’t forget to pick up a new Trapper Keeper after your triple X throwdown! Actually, in an effort to keep the campaign family friendly, Target has replaced the original raunchy lyrics with ones that revolve around “Baby Got Backpack” which has spawned a little “artistic integrity” backlash against Target in the blogosphere.

So what’s the deal? Do these companies really think that preteens are interested in music that was popular just as they were being born?

Of course not. These campaigns are not directed at the kids. They’re directed at the parents. These parents were in their teens/early 20’s in the 90s and these spots appeal to the parents’ “what is cool?” factor. They want the kids to be cool so they take them to JC Penny. (Re-read that last sentence and ponder the thought: “JC Penny = cool?”)

In the Friends episode “The One With Ross’ Inappropriate Song”, Ross and Rachel sang “Baby Got Back” to Emma. If the show were still on now, Emma would be close to kindergarten. And Ross and Rachel are in the prime demo target for…Target.

In a prime highlight of how “the general public doesn’t understand marketing”, Target is also getting beatup in the blogosphere and the media for “marketing to kids” by using such as vulgur song as “Baby Got Back”.

At first glance, it seems the smart move for a company selling school supplies would be to market exclusively to kids. In reality, the true target market for school supplies are 20-30 year old parents. It’s a weird paradox.

Of course, just like sugary breakfast cereal, school supply marketing needs to have a kid targeted element as well so they’ll beg/annoy their parents into buying glittery pencils instead of standard yellow ones.

I think one of the best back to school ads of all time is one that Staples ran for several years. It’s a great example of marketing to the buyer instead of the user. In the ad, sullen kids follow a jubilant dad picking up school supplies while the 1963 Andy Williams’ Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is played in the background. The VO at the end says, “They’re going baacck!” This spot is a slap in the face to all kids heading back to the books…but masterfully captures the mindset of parents.

Market to the buyer…not the user. It’s a mistake that I see a lot with smaller companies. They inaccurately answer the question…Who are you selling to? Of course, this marketing rule goes beyond just school “gear”. Think about your product. Is your marketing working? Re-evaluate who you are selling to and who is actually buying your product.

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Chris Houchens is a marketing raconteur & writer. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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