The commercial that told us Toys ‘R’ Us was doomed

Screenshot of the 2017 Toys ‘R’ Us commercial, “Wondrous Season” from AdWeek

After circling the drain for a number of years, this week Toys ‘R’ Us announced plans to close all of their stores in the United States and the United Kingdom..

Particularly hard hit by this news — outside of the employees, shareholders, and others who are actually directly affected by the development — are children of the 1980s and 1990s. If you grew up during that time, you probably know the jingle: “I don’t wanna [sic] grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid.” Heck, you can probably still hear that bouncing around the walls of your skull next to the Ducktales theme song.

This week’s news shouldn’t be surprising. Toys ‘R’ Us let us know they were done for last year — not when they filed for bankruptcy in September, but when they released a 2017 holiday commercial titled “Wondrous Season.”

You can watch it in this AdWeek post. The ad recycles some of those old commercials with a new version of jingle:

From bikes to trains to video games
We’ve been with you through all these years
Let’s never grow up
Keep doing like we did
So you’ll always be Toys ‘R’ Us kids.

It lays the nostalgia on pretty thick, doesn’t it? The image from the screenshot above — the little girl watching the sunset and resting against Geoffrey the Giraffe — comes on screen just as the wistful voice finishes singing the line, “we’ve been with you through all these years.”

The strategy is obvious: Pluck the nostalgic heartstrings of those children of the 1980s and 1990s, who are now the ones shopping for their own kids. Remind them how much they loved going to the toy store, and get them to bring their own kids. And ultimately, get them to shop at Toys ‘R’ Us — if for no other reason, then to save a piece of their childhood.

What a horrible plan.

Reactions to this week’s news demonstrate that Toys ‘R’ Us did enjoy an enviable level of brand recognition and loyalty. But they took their “never grow up” line a little too literally and never evolved. What sets them apart in today’s marketplace? Other brick-and-mortar shops had them beat on price, and any former Borders employee can tell you what flubbing the digital side of the business means for a specialty retailer. The old jingle used to tell us we could “find the best for so much less.” The “Wondrous Season” version doesn’t even try to make that promise.

Instead of offering something new and using brand loyalty to draw customers back in, “Wondrous Season” essentially begs consumers to go out of their way just to help the failing corporation. It asks you to spend more money than you otherwise would. And who wants to fight traffic and search for a parking space just to trudge around a big box retail location with kids running from aisle to aisle, constantly adding to their Christmas list?

As charity appeals go, you can’t get much worse than that, especially during the holiday season. How can you beg people to prop-up a for-profit business when the Salvation Army is out front collecting spare change to give homes to the homeless? “Wondrous Season” tries to justify it by playing up the childhood connection many of today’s parents have with the brand — again they’ve “been with you through all these years.” But that’s a transactional relationship; “been with you” means they’ve sold you a bunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, not that they helped you move a couch you bought on Craigslist.

Amazingly, the commercial itself actually works. If you grew up with that jingle as part of your Saturday morning soundtrack, the slow and wistful cover and the familiar images might take you back to the carefree days of youth. Nostalgia doesn’t sell toys, though — or at least, nostalgia doesn’t make you want to pay $10 at Toys ‘R’ Us for a toy that you can buy for $8 at Wal-Mart. If you try to go to the moon in a hot air balloon, how well the balloon works won’t determine the success or failure of your mission.

Since they last finished a profitable year back in 2012, Toys ‘R’ Us has suffered declining revenues, mounting debt, and eventually a bankruptcy filing. Still, none of that demonstrated its failure quite like its final Christmas season — when what used to be “the biggest toy store there is” showed it had nothing more to offer to the grown-up Toys ‘R’ Us kids of yesterday.

Grassroots messaging and mobilization consultant