Outdoor-gear retailing giant REI this week rolled out its first-ever TV commercials as part of its seasonal "Find Out" campaign.
I think the retailer just walked off a cliff. Let me explain.
Unless I crash into it with a helium balloon, I'm never going to make it to the top of Mt. Everest. I'm never going to dangle by pitons on the Great Trango Wall in Pakistan. I develop hypothermia just reaching into the back of the refrigerator.
Yet I have enough pro expedition gear in the garage to mount an assault on K2. Snowshoes, ice axes, climbing helmets, plastic mountaineering boots and wicking-action underwear sufficient to dry up the Red Sea.
Why? Because I'm thoroughly manipulated by advertising imagery in this category. The marketing of the major players -- dominated by brands such as the North Face, Columbia, Marmot, Patagonia -- trades in monumental, heroic, beautiful, harrowing scenes: a sunrise over the Eiger, ice-rimed beards and parkas on the summit of Annapurna. The brand poetry in these ads is fascinating and strangely irresistible, implying a cause-effect link between the purchase of a product and fulfillment of an outsize personal destiny. You might not be a thin-air acrobat like Conrad Anker, going vertical in Garhwal Himalaya, but one day, maybe, you could come close. Better get the $40 titanium coffee mug just in case.
In the spots (by BBDO Atlanta), the gorgeous, thin-air extremism of the Himalayas has been replaced by the sodden ambience of the rain forest of British Columbia, where the commercials were filmed. While the visual conventions of the category would call for shots of brilliantly sunlit sawtooth massifs seen from 50 miles away, we see . . . well, not much of anything: In one spot, a steady, cold drizzle falls on a forest; in the other, a rainstorm sweeps into a valley, promising campers a sleepless night dog paddling in their tent. This is the sort of meteorology that makes innkeepers rich.
One of the 30-second spots, "Tree," portrays trekkers who have sought shelter under a large rock overhang in a forest. There are college-age kids, a young couple and one bearded old cuss (I'm guessing that's me). Naturally, everyone is decked in primo Gore-Tex jackets, day packs and woolly caps. The group laughs and chats amiably. The rain lets up and the group disperses, in several directions. It's at this moment the viewer realizes this was a chance encounter of strangers.
"Sept. 9," the voice-over says. "Jason Miller finds out if you want to make instant friends, just add water."
I like it. I also appreciate the oblique reference to freeze-dried foods.
In the other spot, two women -- mother and daughter, perhaps -- sit shivering on a rocky outcropping, smearing peanut butter on bread and snarfing it down like starving gulls. The sun has gone down. It's freezing. They look out at a vista mostly wreathed in clouds. The piano arpeggios kick in:
"Oct. 28. Jenny Kruger finds out that even the finest four-star restaurant is no match for one with 4 million stars." The camera pans up to a patch of sky between the clouds, to the black-blue vault of night sky. Very nice.
REI and BBDO have, in other words, made the daring creative choice to portray the backcountry as it is frequently experienced by most of us: cold, wet, often dreary, disappointing and downright uncomfortable. The company's commitment to authenticity is commendable. It's also a little nuts.
These ads do not make me want to run down to my REI store for more Gore-Tex. They make me want to pull the blanket over my head. They make me want to check into a four-star resort with extra-thick towels and extremely tall drinks.
I want to see dazzling snowfields and skiers in T-shirts; sun-kissed meadows of mountain flowers; sweaty hard bodies free-climbing El Cap on the most perfect day Yosemite has ever seen. It's only the promise of these rare, 1% moments when all goes right that keeps people coming back to the mountains. The REI spots almost play like anti-advertising.
This company is an expert in outdoor life, so how could it not know that backcountry enthusiasts live on denial? This time out, it won't snow in my boots. This time out, my tent won't blow over. On this trip, my Jeep won't get stuck, my kayak won't leak, my WhisperLite stove will finally ignite without an act of Congress.
What do the outdoor-gear and wedding-dress categories have in common? They both depend on the triumph of hope over experience.