If you don’t have anything to say, sing it

Aubergine? I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Marketing Magazine, December 18, 2000   

I watched the song-and-dance extravaganza repeatedly, in all its varying lengths and incarnations.


It seemed to want to sell either a color or a vegetable I’ve never liked. To do that, it mashed together elements of Vincente Minelli’s later baroque MGM musicals, the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy and a chlorinated Esther Williams finale, all reflecting a strange palette. (Eight shades of beige? A pistachio green suit? Aubergine?) The song reminded me of something an ad creative guy said about jingles: “If you don’t have anything to say, sing it.”


I’m sure the lyrics were supposed to be as corny as Kansas in August. But even allowing for that still doesn’t explain why they suggest their own parodic alternatives so readily: “If blue’s been done and brown’s a bore/ Why shop at a failed department store?/ We’re not much help, and we’re used to the jeers/ But please shop here now that we’re owned by Sears/ If you didn’t like Eaton’s because it was lame/ Then you won’t like it now — it’s exactly the same!/ Yes, the same old retail dowager queen/ With a lower-case ‘e’ painted aubergine!”


The retro/throwback aspect of the commercials seems like an odd choice. Why evoke the mid-20th century? If you want to convince people your brand is a phoenix, maybe you want to focus on how beautiful the reborn incarnation is, rather than pointing at the ashes and repeating how dead its predecessor is. Unless you’re trying to go from being Eaton’s to eatons, in which case that’s precisely what you do.


The campaign takes cultural and entertainment conventions from 50 years ago, smirkily framing them in ironic “quotation” “marks.” How “droll.” Also, how “totally overdone.” That’s right, point out how much better Eaton’s used to be, when all the things the chain doesn’t deliver now were what it was known for: dependability, quality, service, “goods satisfactory or money refunded.” And in reminding everyone of that time, make sure to mock all that stuff as being a quaint curiosity from long, long ago, something for which we have no use here in the 21st century. That strategy takes a lot of guts, especially in relaunching a brand whose final 18-month death-throes are painful, embarrassing and easy to recall.


When I think of Eaton’s — or eatons — I don’t think about eggplants. I think about a sudden lurch into selling nothing but clothes and cosmetics by a company once know for appliances and consumer durables; about ill-conceived, tarty attempts at hippification; about selling clothing the core clientele didn’t want, and which the consumers for whom it was intended weren’t going to look for at Eaton’s; about abandoning — repudiating — loyal consumers in favor of an untried demographic that wouldn’t have shopped at Eaton’s with a gun to its head; and about a retailer’s transformation from a place that offered everything for everybody to being a hollow, redundant emporium selling nothing to anyone.


But let’s leave that pain behind, because eatons is open just in time for holiday spending in downtown Toronto in the centre named for its progenitor. The store is cleaner than it had been during its last two years. But you expect that when a retailer auctions off everything on the premises in its flagship location in an effort to climb out of bankruptcy. Of course it’s cleaner. It’s all new stuff. The store layout is unchanged; everything’s exactly where it was before the chain’s collapse. If you’d been out of town for the past two years and walked into the place, you wouldn’t notice any significant differences between Eaton’s and eatons, and that includes the sales staff. They weren’t as surly or incompetent as The Bay’s staff before Eaton’s fell apart, and they don’t seem appreciably more obsequious now that it’s back together again.


But what’s in this for Sears? Why bother to work reviving Eaton’s as eatons when the real estate is probably more valuable, either as space for Sears or as an asset to be sold or leased to another retailer? For sentimental reasons? What can be gained from keeping seven eatons stores going? And what happens if reviving the corpse of the Eaton’s retail colossus fails to make money? If Sears is unhappy with this purchase, there’s no Timothy offering to give the company its money back. His feckless heirs saw to that.