Tuesday, September 15, 2009
If you're seeking evidence that times were simpler in the 90s, look no further than the then-mega brand GAP. While the store has done a fair bit of backsliding over the past decade, it enjoyed some serious popularity back in the 90s. I'm not completely certain that our 2000s-era brains can even wrap themselves around the notion of a prehipster era, but there really was a time before ironic poseur stylings a la American Apparel ruled the roost. Once upon a time, simplicity was cool. They didn't try to sell us a mindset or mentality or lifestyle: they just tried to sell us some khakis and corduroys.
In the 90s, Gap developed a well-conceived strategy for convincing young people everywhere to go out and buy whatever marginally overpriced plain-as-white-bread product they were hawking that week. They were wise in realizing that if their product itself was less than revolutionary, they may as well go out and create some highly calculated ads intended to suggest themselves as edgy and representative of youth culture. They recognized that cool in itself was a relatively poorly defined product, so they might as well just swoop in and claim their unwarranted share of it.
They were keen on the suggestibility of young people, so they unleashed a slew of commercials whose end tagline claimed "everyone" to be in some particular item of clothing. The commercials themselves were clean and simple and appropriately over-serious in a way that suggests they were so cool the actors couldn't be bothered to crack a smile. Each of these ads featured the same well-groomed crowd of ethnically diverse young adults all sporting minor variations of the same Gap item. Someone who obviously had experience staging high school plays blocked the cast into well-maintained formations from which they could stare blankly and nonchalantly at the audience.
Each of these commercials featured a single song, but rather than utilizing the convenient ready-made version of the song they offered each semi-surly young person the star-making opportunity to sing a single line of each. I'm not quite sure if these commercials were supposed to be based on any sort of actual real-life organic situation, but my instinct tells me the answer is probably no. My friends and I wanted to be cool, sure, but we never got together in matching outfits to stare pensively into the expansive abyss in well-organized groupings and come in just on cue for our turn to belt out a fragment of our favorite song.
In this spot, "Everybody in Leather", Gap launched the first portion of its 90s trademark ad campaign:
The synthesizers! The bouncing camera changes! The stone-faced expressions of our attractive stars! I don't know about you, but I just can't get enough. The ad had all the critical ingredients for successfully breaking through the cool barrier. If you're thinking you see a few familiar faces, you may be right. The outstandingly attractive Twilight-hairstyled fellow who gets a lot of face time in these slots is none other than Phantom Planet frontman Alex Greenwald. You know, of the OC theme song? And a bunch of other stuff I would have heard of if I either knew anything about the band or was more diligent in my research?
There's another little lady in the crowd who some of us may know, but she wasn't featured so prominently in the leather spot. Once everybody gets to wear cords and sing "Mellow Yellow" she gets a prime spot in the front right.
Rashida Jones! What on earth are you doing in my 90s Gap ads before I knew who you were and you awkwardly interfered with the heavenly alignment of fated Office romances? Who knew?
There was another in this series in which everyone wore cords and got dressed up in love, Madonna style. Rashida even gets her own line at :16, so play careful attention if you're into that sort of thing:
This ad was the be-all-end-all declaration of a generation's brief but torrid love affair with wholly unattractive fleece vests. I mean, you saw the kids in the commercial. Don't you want to be like them? Not necessarily standing staggered with windows to see the people behind you like in a dance recital, but more just hanging out with your ultra-sleek multicultural gang of unsmiling pals? I was pretty convinced. The fleece vest wasn't necessarily functional clothing (what of my cold arms?) but it was certainly popular.
Aside from this campaign, Gap had a concurrent khaki campaign that differed slightly while similarly emphasizing coolness in the simplicity of Gap clothing. They also subtly suggest that wearing Gap khakis inevitably leads to impromptu well-choreographed dance-offs, which certainly never happened to me when I wore mine. I guess I was just never in the right place at the right time. I could have swing danced* my little heart out.
The khaki ads didn't feature as much singing, but there was a lot more dancing to all types of khaki-lovin' music. We had our country:
I mean, honestly. They don't even fit those models that well, nor they seem especially flattering. Regardless, the commercials had us hooked. We were under the Gap spell and no one could shake it off. We needed these khakis.
The khakis demonstrated their dancing versatility a-go-go:
They hip hopped:
But most of all, they swung:
That's right, the Gap actually paid a significant contribution to the swing revival movement of the late 90s. Well played, Gap. Retro purists hated this garbage, of course. If you've ever seen the Daria episode "Life in the Past Lane", Jane actually meets a retro-centric guy who asserts, "I was pre-khakis commercial and don't you forget it!" Sorry, retro fiends. Gap mainstreamed it.
So there you have it. The Gap may be struggling to define itself now, but back in the 90s it had a well-established reputation for coolness largely based on the simplicity of its ad campaign. If any of you with a business plan are taking notes, though, forget it. This would never work today. After all, nowadays we all fast forward through commercials. In the 90s, however, we watched TV to see our favorite commercials. Yes, it was a simpler time. When we could all just sit on in a blank white space and express ourselves through the non-smiling art of song.
*Swung dance? Swung danced? Someone please past tense-icize this phrase for me.