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Retailers Turn to Reality TV To Market Valentine's Day

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

February 12, 2003

[ By Amy Merrick ]

In a case of reality programming spreading to advertising, at least two retailers are featuring real marriage proposals in their Valentine's Day promotions this week.

Department store retailers Kohl's and Marshall Field's, a division of Target, recruited men who wanted to make their displays of affection very, very public.

In the case of Kohl's , two young men are making their pleas in television commercials. "Kelli, I love you with all my heart and all my soul and all my being," says Jason Stone, a 31-year-old Internet marketer, in his proposal to his girlfriend, Kelli Stanovsky. "I'm ready to start a new life with you, and that's why I'd like to ask you if you will marry me and be my wife." The final image says "Kohl's Bridal Aisle," the name of the retailer's wedding registry.

"I was a little concerned about how they were going to use it," Mr. Stone says. "I didn't want it to be cheesy, I didn't want it to come off as commercial." During the taping, he says, "I felt really comfortable."

Mr. Stone's commercial was shown nationally last night during Fox's "American Idol." The other bachelor, 25-year-old engineer Michael Murphy, will make his pitch during "Survivor," which will be broadcast on Viacom's CBS Thursday night. To make sure the women would say yes, Kohl's did a test run of the commercials Sunday night in Dallas and St. Louis, where the couples live, during the drama "American Dreams," broadcast on General Electric's NBC. Both accepted.

"The angle is that we have all of the necessities that young couples need when starting their lives together," says Julie Gardner, a marketing executive for Kohl's based in Menomonee Falls, Wis. The commercials were created by Ziccardi Partners Frierson Mee in New York and directed by Porter Gale, a documentary filmmaker and founder of Porter Pictures.

Bridal registries are an enormous business, as couples -- and their friends and relatives -- spend thousands of dollars to set up their homes. And as retailers increasingly capitalize on holidays, Valentine's Day, too, has become a windfall.

Tie all that to the popular and controversial reality-TV shows, and the hype reaches new heights. The Kohl's commercials echo programs such as "Joe Millionaire," a show about a construction worker pretending to be a wealthy heir, broadcast on News Corp.'s Fox; and "The Bachelorette," broadcast on Walt Disney's ABC, in which a woman chooses a sweetheart from a pool of candidates.

"The shows are crass, but on the other hand they have a huge audience," says John Lister, chairman of Lister Butler, a brand-identity consultancy in New York. "I don't think Kohl's is going to be damaged by what amounts to a temporary connection to one of these efforts."

At the flagship Field's store in Chicago, three windows lined in bright pink and bedecked with hearts ask, "Will you marry me?" The names will be left blank until a Valentine's Day ceremony, when three men who won a writing contest will make their proposals. Field's is giving each couple a $10,000 store credit toward a wedding dress, tuxedo and rings.

The retailer says it held the contest because it has gotten so many requests to use its famous State Street windows for proposals. Field's also has a convenient reason for its generosity: It recently began selling engagement rings.

Andrea Schwartz, a Field's spokeswoman, says two of the men -- one in the military who may soon ship off to Iraq, the other a widower who sings in his church choir -- are surprising their girlfriends. But for the third couple, who are in their late 60s and first met in high school, the retailer let the fiance-to-be break the news in advance. "He didn't want to give her too much of a shock," Ms. Schwartz says.