On April 23, 1998, Gap Inc. launched a global advertising campaign for its chain of nearly 1,600 casual-clothing stores. This campaign, created by Gap’s in-house agency, Gap Direct, focused on the company’s khaki pants. The U.S. khakis market was growing at a rapid rate. Younger consumers fueled the expanding market as they increasingly eschewed blue jeans, the traditional badge of youth culture, because their baby-boomer parents often wore denim. Furthermore, ‘‘business casual’’ clothes, including khakis, were gaining acceptance as appropriate professional attire. In an effort to claim a greater portion of the khakis market, as well as to burnish the Gap brand, Gap dedicated an estimated $20 to $30 million to its 1998 ‘‘Khakis’’ campaign. The initial three commercials sought to ‘‘reinvent khakis,’’ according to a Gap news release. Each spot was set to a distinct type of music and featured active young adults sporting different styles of Gap khakis. In ‘‘Khakis Rock,’’ skateboarders and in-line skaters executed moves to the music of the alternative rock band Crystal Method, while ‘‘Khakis Groove’’ portrayed energetic hip-hop dancers and funk music from Bill Mason. The most popular and acclaimed ad of the trilogy was ‘‘Khakis Swing,’’ in which stylish khaki-wearers expertly swing danced to Louis Prima’s ‘‘Jump, Jive an’ Wail.’’ The spots, which ran during such high-profile programs as Ally McBeal and ER, used Gap’s trademark white background and showcased Gap’s newest varieties of khakis—flat front, low rise, slim fit, and cargo. Print and outdoor ads also appeared in major markets and in national magazines such as Spin and Details. ‘‘It’s about what you bring together to khakis, and what you want that look to say about you,’’ a Gap representative stated in the May 25, 1998, Daily News Record in an effort to explain the underlying premise of the campaign. Once known as comfortable ‘‘old man’s’’ clothes and then as the preppy pants of the 1980s, khakis were presented as the ultimate in cool in this campaign.
The campaign was an immediate success. Consumers were effusive about the commercials, and Gap’s sales soared after the release of the ads. A USA Today AdTrack survey revealed that younger consumers—a key target for the campaign—responded particularly favorably to Gap’s new message. By March 1999 the company had created a new trio of ‘‘Khakis’’ ads: ‘‘Khakis A-Go-Go,’’ with a 1960s-inspired soundtrack; ‘‘Khaki Soul,’’ set to soul music; and ‘‘Khaki Country,’’ which featured line dancers and the music of country star Dwight Yokum.
The Gap was founded in 1969 when Doris and Don Fisher opened a San Francisco store that primarily offered Levi’s blue jeans. Although the couple had originally planned to name their business PAD, they settled instead on the Gap, in honor of the generation gap that defined the young baby boomer generation. The company rapidly expanded in the 1970s, debuting private-line labels, of which ‘‘Gap’’ eventually became the only brand offered in the stores. The company developed a loyal following of teenagers and young adults, who responded to the catchy ‘‘Fall Into the Gap’’ advertising campaign that ran from 1974 to 1979. In 1981 the Gap acquired the chain of Banana Republic stores, and in 1986 it launched its children’s-clothing venture, GapKids. A seminal moment in Gap history occurred in 1983 when Fischer brought aboardMickey Drexler as his deputy. Not only did Drexler hire newdesigners and renovate stores, but he also honed and simplified the Gap’s brand image. Gap’s advertising reflected its new, carefully cultivated cachet. In 1988 the company began its ‘‘Individuals of Style’’ campaign, a series of striking black-and-white print ads that portrayed famous individuals in simple articles of Gap clothes. Actress KimBasinger appeared in a crisp white Gap shirt and pearls, while Dizzy Gillespie donned a black turtleneck. As the May 15, 1998, edition of Women’s Wear Daily explained, Gap ‘‘flouted the convention of showing fashionmodels in pretty poses, [instead] featuring poets and musicians.’’ Gap continued this theme—described by Fortune as ‘‘extraordinary people in ordinary clothes’’—in its 1993 to 1995 ‘‘Who wore khakis?’’ campaign. These print ads incorporated photos of past celebrities, such as Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, and Ernest Hemingway, clad in khakis.
Gap’s design and marketing formula of studied simplicity proved imitable, however. ‘‘Apparel companies from J.C. Penney to Armani had started selling ‘basics,’ ’’ said Fortune. With new competitors, such as Abercrombie & Fitch, gaining the loyalty of teenagers and 20-somethings, Gap’s sales dwindled. By 1995 store sales were flat. As part of a broader effort to bolster both its sales and its image, Gap launched its first television campaign in 12 years in 1997 with ads for its Easy-Fit jeans. The campaign starred a variety of performers, including L.L. Cool J., Lena Horne, and David Arquette, and revived the ‘‘Fall Into the Gap’’ tag line. For its efforts Gap was named 1997 ‘‘Marketer of the Year’’ by Advertising Age.
One of the primary target audiences of the ‘‘Khakis’’ campaign was teenagers. These members of the so-called Generation Y (or ‘‘echo boom’’) provided obvious opportunities to the company that could capture their allegiance. In 1999 there were 31 million consumers between the ages of 12 and 19, comprising 28 percent of the American population. This group spent an estimated $149 billion of its own money in 1998, according to Long Island (N.Y.) Newsday, and also heavily influenced many family purchasing decisions. In an effort to appeal to Generation Y, Gap sought to create ‘‘Khakis’’ commercials that expressed the values and activities of this segment. ‘‘Khakis Rock,’’ for instance, featured in-line skating and skateboarding, sports that the November 9, 1998, Daily News Record labeled as ‘‘Gen Y pastimes.’’ The khaki pants modeled in the spot were of the baggy style popular among teens. The music choice in ‘‘Khakis Rock’’—the pulsing alternative sound of Crystal Method—was in tune with teens’ tastes. The ad, which was produced to look more like a music video than a traditional commercial, was designed to appeal to a group raised on MTV. Although a Gap spokesperson cautioned the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger that the ‘‘Khakis’’ campaign was meant to curry favor with ‘‘all ages,’’ she did emphasize that ‘‘we think the campaign is very young and high energy.’’ The ‘‘Khakis’’ campaign also attempted to court the notoriously cynical Generation X, those consumers born between 1964 and 1979. ‘‘X-ers are decidedly antimarketing [and] anti-hype,’’ an analyst told the Daily News Record. This demographic group, which came of age during economic recession and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, tended to be pessimistic and reluctant to respond to standard hard-sell advertising messages. ‘‘Khakis’’ ads were accordingly stylish in their execution but deliberately understated in their pitch. ‘‘With us, it’s about entertaining as much as it is about fashion,’’ a Gap spokesperson explained to the Chicago Tribune. The ‘‘retro’’ craze that captivated Generation Xers was also apparent in the ‘‘Khakis’’ campaign. Twenty-somethings in the 1990s embraced cocktails, cigars, and lounge music with a fervency that had eluded their parents, and ‘‘Khakis Swing’’ featured young people swing dancing with aplomb. Moreover, all the actors appearing in the ‘‘Khakis’’ ads were young adults, a calculated choice that conformed to Generation X’s ‘‘prefer[ence for] images that portray people like themselves,’’ according to the Daily News Record.
While the ‘‘Khakis’’ campaign tended to skew toward younger consumers, Gap took care not to alienate baby boomers. The ‘‘business-casual’’ boom of the 1990s meant that more employees—of all ages and positions—took to wearing khakis to work more often. Indeed, in September 1997, Gap handed out free khakis on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and convinced the exchange to relax its strict suits-only dress code for one day. The ‘‘Khakis Swing’’ ad exploited boomers’ ‘‘nostalgia for the old days,’’ an industry analyst told the Daily News Record. In fact, the Daily News Record concluded that the ‘‘Khakis Swing’’ commercial ‘‘reach[ed] all three generations.’’
Gap was not the only company seeking to capture younger consumers. Levi Strauss & Company launched its $50 million ‘‘One Leg At A Time’’ advertising campaign for its Dockers division in March, 1998. Founded in 1986, Dockers dominated the khaki sector, controlling 26 percent of the market in 1998. While Dockers had experienced considerable success with its ‘‘Nice Pants’’ campaign (which ran from 1995 through 1998), Dockers, like Gap, expected growth to come from Generation Xers and echo boomers, according to Advertising Age. This new campaign, conceived by Foote, Cone & Belding was intended to draw in younger consumers. ‘‘One Leg At A Time’’ had different components, including television commercials (which appeared during programming such as the NCAA basketball championships and prime-time shows), print, and outdoor spots. Dockers also utilized more unconventional marketing strategies. The brand sponsored independent film festivals, showed movie clips from these festivals on the walls of buildings in trendy neighborhoods, and sent free khakis to cutting-edge figures such as Harmon Lee and Omar Sosa. ‘‘We don’t want to be the big corporation, banging you over the head with our message,’’ a Dockers spokesperson told the Daily News Record. ‘‘We’ll try to set ourselves apart by making ourselves a part of life on the street level.’’ In July 1998, however, Dockers ended ‘‘One Leg At A Time,’’ citing increased advertising pressure from Gap. In its place Dockers tried a new strategy when it ‘‘dropp[ed] the ordinary guy image it has had since its launch, [and] switch[ed] to a sexier approach,’’ according to Advertising Age on January 18, 1999. Two new commercials—both of which featured attractive young men who receive considerable attention from women because of their pants—aired mostly during sports and male-oriented programming. Gap faced other challengers as well. Like Dockers, the Haggar Clothing Company sold its khaki pants at retail stores. In June 1998 the company debuted print ads that portrayed model Billy Brown clad only in Haggar khakis. ‘‘The ad,’’ said the Washington Post, ‘‘communicated the sentiment that khakis, specifically those from Haggar, are cool.’’ Recognizing that women purchased nearly half of all men’s clothing for their partners, Haggar’s new campaign targeted females. Thus the ads appeared in publications popular among women, such as Glamour and Marie Claire. Tommy Hilfiger, a trendy casual-wear designer, represented an additional threat to Gap. Advertising Age called Hilfiger a ‘‘marketing titan’’ and the ‘‘sportswear choice’’ for fashion-minded 20- and 30-somethings. After launching a women’s sportswear line in 1996 to augment its successful men’s line, Hilfiger and Miramax films teamed up to tout the 1998 movie, The Faculty. Stars from the film appeared in print and television ads (wearing Hilfiger creations, of course) that ran on MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central and in magazines such as Teen People, Spin, Details, and Rolling Stone. Gap also faced competition from hip retail chains such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which targeted consumers below the age of 30. The bulk of Abercrombie & Fitch’s sales were derived from its glossy catalogue, but the company also operated a chain of 159 stores across the United States.
A year before the launch of Gap’s ‘‘Khakis’’ ads, the company’s designers and marketers had determined that ‘‘1998 would be the year of the khaki,’’ said Fortune. In addition to conceiving the campaign Gap developed new styles of the classic tan pants in hopes of capitalizing on booming khakis sales. (Total khaki sales were 12 percent higher in 1997 than 1996, and 1996 sales had been 22 percent higher than 1995.) While Gap certainly hoped to sell large quantities of khakis, the massive effort it devoted to the campaign undergirded its overarching goal: to strengthen and contemporize the Gap brand. Khakis offered the Gap a means to draw a broad crosssection of American consumers into the company’s stores. As the Daily News Record asserted, ‘‘[i]t’s rare for one item to stretch its legs from the golf clubhouse to urban streets to the corporate boardroom.’’ Khakis did just this, however, proving to be popular school attire for teens, ‘‘casual day’’ garb for employees, and clubbing clothes for Generation Xers. The ‘‘Khakis’’ campaign attempted to reach all of these distinct demographic groups.
Since Gap sought to reach across demographic divides, the company used different media to carry its ‘‘Khakis’’ message. Television commercials were the foundation of the campaign. For the most part Gap selected programs that garnered a younger audience of Generation X and Generation Y viewers, including ER, Ally McBeal, The Practice, and The X-Files. When the company ‘‘re-debuted’’ these ads in August 1998 it added to its roster Felicity, a hit show among teens, and Party of 5, a drama that had a cult-like following among teens and 20-somethings. Gap also ran ‘‘Khakis’’ commercials during more high-profile programming. In May 1998 the company spent an estimated $1.7 million to advertise on the final episode of the tremendously popular sitcom Seinfeld. The 1999 installment of ‘‘Khakis’’ ads first appeared during the Academy Awards telecast, which was a ‘‘major hit with women and young people and dr[ew] a more affluent audience than the Super Bowl,’’ according to the San Jose Mercury News. Print ‘‘Khakis’’ ads were published in more youth-oriented magazines, such as Spin, Details, Vibe, Vanity Fair, Vogue, ESPN, Teen People, and Entertainment Weekly. Bus and billboard ads were also used in key markets.
Since the campaign had the dual purpose of enhancing the image of the overall Gap brand, the company was careful to ensure that the ‘‘Khakis’’ ads projected the Gap’s desired image. The look and feel of the spots, with their stark, white backgrounds and minimalist feel, shared the design principle of Gap stores. Moreover, despite their music-video undercurrent, the commercials remained focused on Gap’s khakis and the Gap logo that silently appeared at the end of each spot.
The ‘‘Khakis’’ ad were lauded by viewers and critics. A USA Today AdTrack survey revealed that the spots were ‘‘very effective and very popular with consumers of all ages.’’ The survey indicated that the ‘‘Khakis’’ spots scored ‘‘especially well among young consumers.’’ Teen marketing studies showed that ‘‘Khakis’’ ads were the second most popular of any advertisement among teenagers and that consumers under 20 ranked Gap fifth among brands they liked most.
Advertising critics and apparel industry analysts were equally enthusiastic. The New York Times named ‘‘Khakis Swing’’ one of the year’s best ads, and the Chicago Daily Tribune declared that the ‘‘Khaki’’ ads ‘‘created the biggest cultural stir of any TV spot’’ since a popular 1997 ad. An analyst for the Wall Street Journal reported that the ‘‘Khakis’’ commercials had bolstered Gap’s brand: ‘‘They have a brand, not just retail stores. People are buying the brand, not just something to cover their nakedness.’’
Gap stores experienced a stunning 24 percent gain in same-store sales during May 1998 alone, which USA Today credited to the ‘‘Khakis’’ advertising. Year-end figures for 1998 revealed that Gap had increased its sales nearly 40 percent during the year. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Gap’s ‘‘high-energy advertising’’ for ‘‘fueling’’ this rapid growth.