Tim Tan Huynh

Gap – 1999

8 Aug 2019 — Gap's TV campaigns that aired in 1999 had the one-two punch of financial and cultural impact.

Gap is a mainstay of American fashion and retail; the brand is celebrating its 50th anniversary later this month. Though still a multi-billion-dollar business, Gap and the parent company that shares its name have definitely seen better days. The best of these days, both in terms of stock price and cultural influence, was in 1999. The commercials that aired throughout the year surely played an important role in that success.

I have affinity for the brand and nostalgia for the period, but these commercials are admirable even to people who don’t care for either. The “Khaki,” “Everybody,” and “That’s Holiday” campaigns are the kind that advertisers and marketers strive to make. In addition to being on-brand and creating sales, they’re entertaining and memorable to the point that people seek them on YouTube, 20 years later.

Each campaign had three or four commercials and aired in a different season. They all have a minimalist look that’s ahead of its time; Apple wouldn’t make all-white backgrounds its thing until a few year later. The commercial-specific tagline appears at the end and is followed by an image of the familiar logo that’s been in use for the past 30 or so years (except for one week of infamy).

The fact that the company’s website address, including the universal “www.” prefix, appears below the logo is a sign of the times. Access to, and knowledge of, the Worldwide Web wasn’t common. TV campaigns were much more important, and I saw the “Khaki” and “Everybody” commercials all the time. I was apparently part of the target demographic: teens who were the ideal blend of independent and impressionable.

The music in these commercials is licensed. Gap has heritage as a jeans-and-records store, so fittingly, these commercials feature hit singles or genre standards. Instead of using some of the great music from that year, the decision-makers avoided dating the commercials. Regardless, each song fits the theme and/or appeals to a demographic.

“Khaki” Campaign

The “Khaki” campaign mostly aired in the spring. In general, these commercials feature dance routines that aren’t supposed to look like dance routines. In other words, the dancing is more freestyle than theatrical, although there’s one notable exception. All except one of these commercials have the all-white background that evokes a feeling of being in heaven or, depending on your view, limbo.

“Khaki Swing”

According to Business Insider, the budget for this commercial was $20 to $30 million. Despite the price tag, Gap definitely got its money’s worth. This commercial is from 1998, but I’m including it because its campaign is from ’98-’99 and because it’s so iconic. It helped to (re)introduce the swing music and freeze-frame-and-camera-spin trends. The 1956 song is “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” by Louis Prima.

“Khaki Country”

I can’t find a video of this commercial that’s been posted by one of the creators, so I’ve posted the official music video for the featured song. It’s a 1999 cover by Dwight Yoakam of the 1979 song, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen. The music video has obvious similarities to the commercial, which is unique from the others because it features items—cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and khaki skirts—that Gap typically doesn’t offer in its stores.

“Khaki Soul”

I don’t remember seeing this commercial at the time. It’s not visually consistent with the other ones because the set isn’t pure white and the focus is individual dancing. It still contributes to the overall message of the campaign, which is that (Gap) khakis fit whatever genre you like. The choreographer is Fatima Robinson, who appears at the start and throughout the commercial. The song is an unknown remix of “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers.

“Khaki A-Go-Go”

This commercial might be my favorite. It’s certainly the most elaborate and spectacular. The lead dancer is Kevin Stea, who has worked with Madonna, who in turn has other connections to Gap. The moves are apparently inspired by routines from the 1966 musical, Sweet Charity. This musical and its 1969 movie adaptation were choreographed and directed by Bob Fosse. The song is “Wild Elephants” by James Clarke, but its year of origin escapes me.

“Everybody”

The “Everybody” campaign aired in the summer and the fall. It has the same visual style as the “Khaki” campaign, but each commercial features a different product and showcases the singing of its cast members, who look too cool to care on purpose. The underlying message is a promise of being included among cool people, although the commercials arguably depict conformity and soullessness.

“Everybody in Vests”

This commercial is arguably the most iconic of the bunch. The single-take, horizontal camera-pan is so recognizable that Gap has re-used it to promote a 2017 collection of products from the 90s. The cast includes Madonna’s former choreographer Kevin Stea again, and they sing the second chorus of her 1984 song, “Dress You Up.” This rendition is better than the original and anybody can sing it, which I’ve done more than once.

Besides being accessible, the song is appealing to the parents of kids and teens at the time. The former (like my mom) would’ve been old enough to remember the Like a Virgin era and the latter (like my sisters and me) would’ve been young enough to want the featured vests. Madonna has appeared in a 2003 Gap campaign, and another single from that album plays during a Stranger Things scene that’s basically a 1985 Gap commercial.

“Everybody in Cords”

This commercial is presently my favorite. “Vests” has a more singable rendition of a more famous song, but “Cords” has a more dramatic rendition of its song, which is the 1966 single, “Mellow Yellow” by Donovan. I like the buildup and drama that are presented visually as well as musically. The camera pans across as four cast members individually sing the lines of the first verse, and then the camera zooms out as the entire cast sings the chorus.

In order, the solo singers are Alex Greenwald, Monet Mazur, a woman whom I haven’t identified, and Jason Thompson. The most famous person, Rashida Jones, appears at the end of the commercial. Watching it now, I like how everyone is relaxing on amphitheatre-like seats and how they collectively look somewhat confrontational. Though not intended, thinking about a mob of belligerent, cord-wearing college students is funny.

“Everybody in Leather”

This commercial is my least favorite one. It has multiple cuts and multiple solo singers to match the unusual structure of the song, which is the 1981 single, “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode. Unlike “Dress You Up,” this song appeals to adults who would’ve been old enough to like the band and afford to dress like them while still being young enough to want to do so.

If my chronology is correct, then the “Everybody” campaign is like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: the first entry is good, the second one is better, and the third one is disappointing. The director of the “Everybody” commercials is Pedro Romhanyi; he might have directed the “Khaki” ones too. One man who had definitely been involved with the creation of all of them is Carl Byrd, an alumnus of Gap’s marketing team at the time.

“That’s Holiday”

I never saw these commercials that aired during the winter. They have the same look and feel as the others, but the sets and choreography are a lot more elaborate. “Mountains, “Trees,” and “Kids” are similar to “Khaki A-Go-Go” in the sense that the action is theatrical, but it’s not limited to dancing. Cast members assemble into formations, skate on ice, and even go down slides.

The “That’s Holiday” commercials aren’t single-take sequences, either. Special effects are used to transition between the various sets and routines: cast members morph from/into one cast member throughout each commercial. The director, Michel Gondry, had used the same technique in the music video for “Let Forever Be” by The Chemical Brothers featuring Noel Gallagher.

This campaign also differs from the other ones in terms music. Its commercials all feature the same version of “Sleigh Ride,” which is possibly an edited recording by the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler. The music transitions to and from brief samples of another song while cast members ice-skate for a short time partway through. “Mountains” and “Trees” have “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice and “Kids” has “Cool It Now” by New Edition.

Impact

The period from the late 1990s to early 2000s was the golden era of Gap. During this time, it surpassed Levi’s and became the largest clothing manufacturer in the world. Its stock prices peaked in 1999 and 2000 when, coincidentally, the company’s now-timeless commercials aired. I was surprised to learn that they were done in-house. Gap has traditionally used creative agencies on a project basis and has only recently appointed an agency of record.

Personal bias aside, 1999 was a special time for music and movies. Commercials aren’t considered to be as meaningful, but these ones are undeniably woven into the cultural fabric of their time. They depict and elicit joy, from overzealous to understated, which reflects the overall climate of optimism near the onset of the new millennium. Gap proved to be ahead of the curve by adopting and then abandoning minimalism before everybody else.

The clothes might questionable, but I admire these commercials, and I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one.