TJ Maxx Flunks Old School

Saying things incorrectly in a way people don’t generally say them isn’t being linguistically progressive, it’s just being ignorant.

[Enjoy this guest post from Diana Barnes-Brown! —Ed.]

If you’re looking for more evidence of the continual decline of the English language, look no further than T.J. Maxx’s spring 2011 ad campaign.

In one such specimen, a pretty young woman dressed somewhere between BoHo chic and “my older sister told me what to wear at SXSW so I wouldn’t embarrass her” spends her time in a bunch of pretty young ways in a montage of ruffled fabrics, visits to the park, and inviting clothing merchandising.

Young Ms. Maxx has really pretty hair and seems nice enough. I’d hang out with her if she were a coworker. Especially if she didn’t talk. As commercials go, this one is far from the most offensive or inane.

But, as often happens, the creative types behind this short film had to think up something for their clever young tastemaker to say so other clever young tastemakers would buy into it. The whole thing degenerates into “boardroom hip,” my term for when people in the business of selling something are tone-deaf about those to whom they’re trying to sell it.

So they wrote a voiceover script in which Ms. Maxx and her impressively wholesome good looks extol the virtues of the season’s must-have wardrobe. You can shop! And also save! And look like a lip gloss commercial! And hang with your friends LOL! 

[Apologies: the best we can find is this handheld recording of the commercial on TV – Ed.]

“I’m in T.J. Maxx all the time,” exclaims our friend. “I used to think it was old-school, but it’s not. I get this season’s designer clothes – and I still get to eat!”

See? She’s edgy! She’s down to earth, with regular-person concerns and a gastrointestinal tract! Just like other middle-class female consumers between the ages of 17 and 25!

Sadly, T.J. Maxx ad copy people, “old-school” does not mean what you think it means. “Old-school” isn’t “old-fashioned” – some dumb thing our parents tried to make us do because they were SO UNCOOL. “Old-school” is a good, fashionable thing inspired by, or taken directly from, past cultural traditions, usually the recent past. Urban Dictionary defines it as “anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect.”

You wouldn’t say, “Whoa, these cave paintings made by Paleolithic humans are so old-school!” Nor would you say, “My mom tried to convince me to wait until my wedding night to consummate my relationship with my fiancé, but I told her that was really old-school.” Because that is not what “old-school” means.

For anyone else who may need clarification regarding the use of “old-school,” please enjoy this handy usage chart:

Old School: Playing Frogger on an 8-bit Atari gaming system.
Old People: Your mom telling you to stop playing Frogger and fill out your pre-med application already.
Old Fashioned: Listening to the phonograph at the apothecary shoppe.

Old School: Capezio dance shoes.
Old People: Your dad telling you not to wear Capezio dance shoes because they have no arch support.
Old Fashioned: Boots with buttons on them.

Old School: High-waisted jeans.
Old People: Mom jeans.
Old Fashioned: “It’s you dungaree-wearing women and your votes who are destroying this once fine nation!”

And so forth.

Example: mom jeans.

[Image credit goes to A Mom In Red High Heels, who speaks to her demo in a language they understand. – Ed.]

While my demographic is no longer 17 to 25, it was recent enough that I know what mattered to me at that time, and I know plenty of people who still inhabit this demographic. They wouldn’t take this woman’s advice about anything. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she doesn’t come across as sharing their cultural priorities and knowledge base. This seems like a pretty “ad copy 101” concept to mess up when your goal is to make people buy things because they identify with your protagonist.

Unlike ads that poke fun at the theory that consumers want to be like the people using the product – most famously the Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign from Old Spice – this ad is embarrassing, tone-deaf, and irritating. Like when your boss calls blogs “e-diaries” and printing things “downloading,” and then gets mad at you for having no idea what he’s talking about.

Where am I going with all of this? Well, there are two key issues here that deserve the Overthinking It treatment.

First, while language and in particular semantics are dynamic, they aren’t dynamic in this way. Saying things incorrectly in a way people don’t generally say them isn’t being linguistically progressive, it’s just being ignorant. There’s a difference between a) meaning that evolves over time, as people slowly apply a word at the edges of its current meaning, and that usage gradually edges from rare to common and b) meaning that is confounded because you never knew the common or accurate usage in the first place.

To vary from or build upon a linguistic or semantic convention, you first have to understand what it is you had to begin with. Attempts to justify flipping “old-school” from a positive to a negative connotation in 20 seconds of ad time should drive any self-respecting linguist bats. These aren’t cases of descriptive versus prescriptive linguistics (in other words, legitimate theoretical concerns for those who examine the science of language). This is balls-out linguistic apologism. Choices like these make us worse at saying what we mean in a world already rife with misunderstandings.

Second, errors like this say a lot about the difference between making oneself (or one’s media) come across as culturally relevant versus culturally suspect.

The commercial, when I saw it, happened to surface during a break from Juno on the Oxygen network. Juno is an excellent counterpoint to the woman in the commercial. While Diablo Cody has been accused – fairly – of being overly precious and of creating characters whose uncannily perfect comebacks are far too rehearsed, at least the writing addresses relevant cultural concerns using accurate cultural vocabulary.

It might not occur to an actual, real-life 17-year-old (however precocious, culturally savvy, or pregnant) to make a reference to the fictional band from My So-Called Life or to crack wise using the word “shenanigans.” But, at the same time, when Juno does this, we get where she’s coming from, and so does the demographic she represents. When the audience likes the writing, it’s because the viewers want to believe they’d think of similarly clever remarks in similar situations. Conversely, no one who wishes to be taken seriously wants the rhetorical skills of Ms. Maxx.

Bottom line: 1) don’t use cultural vocabulary that isn’t yours to bring about a certain end unless you’re quite certain that you’re using it the right way. 2) If you fail in this endeavor, those of us who are paying attention will mock you, distrust you, and likely not buy your stuff.

[Do you find T.J. Maxx’s use of “old school” as suspect as Diana? Or are you just happy T.J’s slashed their prices? Sound off in the comments!]

Overthinking It occasionally publishes guest articles from our partners in the OTI-verse. (Open pitches for guest articles are currently closed.)

45 Comments on “TJ Maxx Flunks Old School”

    • JosephFM #

      Indeed, and “I’m Lovin’ It” originally referred to a woman’s booty-shaking in the JT song.

      Reply

    • Mike #

      FWIW, I’m noticing “I’d hit it” drifting in meaning. you start using it as a joke to mean something other than literally having sex with, and before long you’re using it not as a joke to mean that. still, I think McDonald’s probably weren’t saying what they thought they were saying.

      Reply

  1. cat #

    Hrm… What?

    “You can shop! And also save! And look like a lip gloss commercial! And hang with your friends LOL!” “See? She’s edgy! She’s down to earth, with regular-person concerns and a gastrointestinal tract! Just like other middle-class female consumers between the ages of 17 and 25!”

    The tone of these comments is a teensy bit harsh and condescending.

    “Old-school” isn’t “old-fashioned” – some dumb thing our parents tried to make us do because they were SO UNCOOL. “Old-school” is a good, fashionable thing inspired by, or taken directly from, past cultural traditions, usually the recent past.

    I take issue with this claim. I think “old school” is your definition of “old-fashioned” and “old people”. The speaker is claiming that she thought the store was “old-school” but it IS NOT and is instead somewhere you can find new, fashionable things. It isn’t that “old-school” is good and fashionable, but the things that are NOT “old-school” are good and fashionable.

    “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she doesn’t come across as sharing their cultural priorities and knowledge base.”

    Most blogs and magazines that consider cost will repeat the same basic idea, albeit a little more elegantly.

    “But, at the same time, when Juno does this, we get where she’s coming from, and so does the demographic she represents.”

    I find this sentence hilarious. TJ Maxx girl is much easier to relate to than Juno’s indecipherable hipster babble. How can you connect with someone who tries to use language to distance herself? And yes, I am from that demographic.

    Reply

    • JosephFM #

      No, “old-school” most definitely still means “better and more worthy of respect than the newest things, which are all just fads and won’t stand the test of time”.

      But the existence of this comment, provided it’s not simply trolling, does provide evidence against the piece’s thesis, since apparently enough 17-25 year olds are sufficiently ignorant of their own culture that the marketingspeak is starting to actually change the meaning of words.

      Reply

    • Homeboy2011 #

      cat, You are quite correct with this statement. I, being young and attuned to urban phrasing, think that a term like “old-school” can apply to a number of interpretations. The important thing, however, is that the TJ Maxx summer line looks fantastic and like it might fit a multitude of different young lifestyles. I think it might be on sale at your nearest retailer. Just a guess though:) L’ing OL.

      Farewell good friends. I hope to catch you on the flip side.
      -C.M. Meyrowitz

      Reply

  2. Timothy J Swann #

    Man, cat got accused of trolling. Someone needs to get dates on these names to show how long people have been around. Also someone needs to tell me how to get an Avatar!

    Also, minor and insignificant Brit perspective: TJ Maxx is called TK Maxx here. Typo perhaps?

    Reply

    • Ryan S #

      I like the sound of “TK Maxx” better. It’s more extreme. Like, “TOTAL KNOCKOUT MAXX!” Makes me want to pound a Mountain Dew, hope on my BMX, and do backflips on it all the way to the Godsmack concert.

      Reply

      • Ryan S #

        *hop on my BMX

        Reply

    • cat #

      Thank you, Tim. :)

      Reply

  3. Darin #

    Hi, my name is Darin. I was abused by this commercial.

    (everyone) “Hi Darin”

    Seriously, my wife and I were shown this commercial during Hulu shows. I could never figure out what bothered me so much about it. I understand that the idea is to create a “Maxxinista” like a Nordie (someone who shops significantly at Nordstroms). What irked me was the direct assault on sensibility, “designer clothes… that I absolutely need, and I still get to eat.”

    Let me rephrase, “You don’t have to choose between food and clothes. You can have fashion designer clothes at TJ Maxx and enough money to eat.” Really? Is the decision between food and clothes one that people actually consider? Maybe, they have tapped into a group that this is a serious decision. That’s why they have a size 2 model. She’s anorexic and the choice between food and clothes is a serious decision. Sigh…

    Reply

    • Gab #

      Is the decision between food and clothes one that people actually consider?

      Yes.

      I’m not saying I liked the ad at all (the thesis, I think, is mostly accurate, that “oldschool” is NOT a negative word the way the ad makes it out to be), but there is a significant reason for the line about being able to eat- there is, indeed a portion of our population that has to pick and choose what they pay for or purchase because they can’t afford everything they need at once.

      Have you ever actually shopped at a TJ Maxx/Marshalls or a Ross (same business model, different brands)? Stores like that do get fancy brands from department stores and sell the merch for sometimes less than a third of the price. So TJMaxx et. al. come in handy because I can get three designer pairs of jeans for the price of one. Sure, lower-income families could go to Wal-Mart or K-Mart (not Target anymore, they’ve become far too pretentious and expensive for really poor people) and get ten pairs, but that dismisses a very important part of the social pressure to have a lot, and, importantly, have a lot of NICE stuff. Brands matter. Even if only the person wearing it knows what’s on the label, cultural norms push for that label to be something exorbitantly expensive. And food is more expensive than clothes, sometimes (especially eating healthy), and budgeting for the necessities is something many families struggle with every week (or at whatever increment the paychecks come). That includes both food and clothing.

      I grew up in a household of that target demographic, and so did a number of my friends. I saw this commercial with some of them, and one of them shouted, “Oh, totally!” after the food line. I actually give props so the TJ-X corporation for putting that line in. I think it’s bold and blunt. Again, the “oldschool” stuff was plain stupid, but the food thing? Genius. It gets at the moral fiber of the demographic, and something that demographic feel especially hurt by: I, being a hard-working, tax-paying American, should not have to choose between nice things and having food- I should be able to have both. Yes, it’s normative, but that’s the point. The cold reality is that the American Dream is nigh impossible to achieve, and many people are faced with that every time they go to the grocery store or realize they need a new pair of pants- and, Heaven forbid, when both happen at the same time. The ad is saying you shouldn’t have to choose, and look, we’re making that happen for you. Especially with so many people looking for work right now, I think the, “And I still get to eat,” line probably resonated with a LOT more people than you realize.

      (Full disclosure: I also used to work at a Marshalls, which is owned by the same company that runs TJMaxx. I hated the job and the company, so this is in no way an endorsement of because of that.)

      Reply

      • Gab #

        Whoops- I opened it with the question in quotes and messed up the HTML… Fail, major fail, so sorry.

        Reply

      • Diana Barnes-Brown #

        Yeah, having worked in poverty prevention/lefty econ policy for a few years, the “look good, eat well” stuff (even though data-wise, the American dream of leaving poverty behind and achieving prosperity through hard work alone has been next to impossible since maybe the early 1970s, if remember correctly) really strikes a nerve for American consumers of probably any age. I think affordable clothing is a good thing, generally, and it’s also surprisingly necessary for things like having a professional job, going to an interview, etc. So while I’m not an expert on this particular company’s ethical profile in terms of worker treatment, sustainability, etc., I have to say I kind of wish it was an ad for something more elitist that sported the bad copy, because I tend to root for the scrappy underdog, socio-economically speaking, in these scenarios, but I stand by my argument that Maxx’s copywriters are shooting themselves in the foot here.

        Reply

        • Gab #

          I’m not saying they aren’t shooting themselves in the foot in terms of the age target demographic- I already said I thought using “oldschool” that way was stupid. And I agree about how the ad seems to be complying to some rather strict gender guidelines, too. But when it comes to the socieoeconomic demographic, I think they hit it on the head.

          So then, I’d say the ad falls apart because they weren’t sure who they were targeting. While the different groups aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive (::raises hand::), targeting them sometimes requires rather different approaches that necessitate a different kind of ad for each group. They maybe could have framed it in a way to incorporate all of them (show a young woman in a suit she got from TJMaxx getting a job, maybe?), but I don’t think they were thinking of the groups as at the same time in the same person.

          I think on the bottom line, we agree, though- they didn’t know their audience, and they thus didn’t know how to communicate properly.

          Reply

          • Diana Barnes-Brown #

            Yeah, I think we’re very much on the same page – I was not so much arguing that there was anything wrong with constructing an effective message, but more that these guys are kinda taking a “throw something at the wall, see what sticks” approach to the whole deal.

  4. Gab #

    Heh, this reminds me of how a few of the people my mom’s age in her family talk about “having a Skype.”

    Reply

    • Mike #

      or inappropriately putting “the” in front of things. the skype. the facebook.

      Reply

      • Gab #

        Haha, yes. Another one I hear in my household, “clickon” Not like, “Click on the link,” but as one word and its own verb. So it’ll come up as, “It won’t clickon,” (instead of, “It won’t load.”) Oh, old(er) people…

        Reply

        • Mike #

          yeowch I hadn’t heard that before

          Reply

        • Adrian #

          Anyone else’s parents double click EVERYTHING?

          Reply

          • Gab #

            Yup. And they aren’t even old, still in their forties.

          • Diana Barnes-Brown #

            YES. Infuriating.

      • Timothy J Swann #

        If they’re calling it thefacebook then maybe are just going back to the original/strongly distrust Sean Parker.

        Reply

  5. Diana Barnes-Brown #

    I hear what Cat’s saying when she argues that Juno’s cultural concerns are not relevant to her. Maybe I was not sufficiently clear when using this example that what I meant was that Cody knows her target demographic. In other words, the demographic to which she marketed her movie seems to be pretty much the demographic that likes it. If we’re being honest here, yeah, I think Juno is pretty much the hipster Dawson’s Creek in terms of breathy overarticulation, and both character and movie are irritating and false. But whether **I** like it or not or whether a piece of media is in some higher qualitative or ethical sense “good” is a separate issue from the one I was attempting to raise, which is this: when dealing with media created to serve a specific purpose (such as “make people buy things” or “appeal to hipsters of a certain age”), it’s interesting to ask whether the elements of that media, like them or not, do the work they’re supposed to do in service of that purpose. I’d argue pretty strongly that including an oft-used term of a certain demographic in a way that demo members rarely use it themselves is an example of one element – language, and more specifically semantics – NOT doing the work it is supposed to be doing in service of the larger goal of the commercial. (As for Cat’s argument that “old-school” means “old-fashioned” in a negative way, we’ll have to agree to disagree there.)

    Re: “The tone of these comments is a teensy bit harsh and condescending,” well yeah! I don’t much like it when a bunch of people who are trying to get other people to spend money so that a corporation can get rich(er) misrepresent language, women, and healthy priorities (see: additional comments in this thread on eating vs. shopping) in an inane giggle-fest of anti-meaning. And misrepresentation — whether due to sloppiness or conscious malfeasance — is where ethics will always be an inherent part of language, though I understand that this view may put me in the minority, or at least well into the land of pedantry. But that was my response to the piece of media itself, whereas I do not feel harsh and condescending towards people who may have come away from the media with a different view, and who are willing to take the effort to express that view. That’s what critical analysis and true discourse is all about, and it’s a good thing.

    Reply

    • cat #

      OK, I see where you were going with the Juno comment now…to which I reply, I believe that TJ Maxx has a solid understanding of their demographic. It’s not a particularly complex one but they understand their customers main concerns and are addressing them in a way designed to draw in the largest crowd.

      I didn’t mean that I thought “old-school” was a negative, but that the way the speaker used the term it is a negative because it is in opposition to the thing that she wants which is new and trendy and fashionable. I’m a bit of a throwback myself, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Connie Francis, woot woot! My point is that it doesn’t sound wrong to my ear for her to use the term that way whether or not I agree with the claim. Although now I’ve read the word “old-school” and heard it so many times in my mind that it’s kind of lost all meaning. (See: Most recent episode of the Pod F. Tompkast)

      Reply

      • Diana Barnes-Brown #

        There is a word for that, in fact: semantic saturation!

        Reply

  6. Diana Barnes-Brown #

    Re: eating vs. shopping, yeah, it’s really good I didn’t go the women ‘n media route here. There were so many hazily sunlit scenes and light-colored fabrics in the T.J. Maxx add I momentarily thought I’d been transported to a commercial for ladyproducts. Because being a woman, the world of mainstream advertising would have us think, is all about wearing white pants while having pillow fights on trampolines. Also sometimes eating yogurt in grey hoodies.

    Reply

  7. LaLaD #

    The use of old-school in the commercial doesn’t make sense to me, but I don’t agree with the definition from the article either.

    “Nor would you say, “My mom tried to convince me to wait until my wedding night to consummate my relationship with my fiancé, but I told her that was really old-school.” Because that is not what “old-school” means.”

    I have no problem with that usage. The idea that a generation rejects an earlier generation’s values, that the new generation would consider their elders to be of an old school of thought, be that one they view positively or negatively, is an appropriate usage of old school in my opinion.

    Someone once gave me a t-shirt with the old NES controller pad printed on it which said old school above it. While this is the context the article asserts old school should be used in, I feel more like it was a co-opting of the words, making them a slang phrase which carries a conontation of coolness not inherent before. This is an additional, optional layer though, not a replacing one, using old school to say old fashioned is fine in my book.

    Reply

  8. Crystal #

    I was 18 and a freshmen in college when Juno premiered. Yeah, the dialogue is cute, but it doesn’t speak for my demo any more than the cheesy TJ Max commercial.

    As far as old-school, it’s slang. Slang varies over time and by location. Old-school can go either way with positive or negative. I’ve always thought that old-school implied that something was dated. Most 20-somethings I know utter the word with a bit of contempt or disinterest.

    Reply

    • Brian #

      Most 20-somethings I know utter every word with a bit of contempt or disinterest.

      Reply

      • Gab #

        Being a twenty-something, I respond with contempt. CONTEMPT! RAWR!

        Reply

        • Diana Barnes-Brown #

          Whatever. Contempt is sooooo last year. Wanna go ride bikes in our sweet hotpants singlets, because they are totally *entire outfits?*

          Reply

  9. One #

    Since most people in the 17-25 demographic are as dumb as a sack of hammers, I’d have to say that any qualm you may have with this incorrect use of terms flies so far over their head that it really doesn’t matter.

    Reply

  10. Franklin #

    Old School: A term that can have mixed meanings depending on the usage.
    Old People: People who often angrily shake their canes in the air while complaining about the improper usage of the term Old School.
    Old Fashioned: Writing lengthy articles about what old people are angry about.

    Reply

  11. Crystal #

    Old fashioned: Complaining about things young people do/say/fail to understand.

    Reply

  12. Diana Barnes-Brown #

    Woah, couple of folks got up on the wrong side of the lofted futon this morning! Those things are terrible for my back these days, what with my sciatica thing acting up again. No time to chat, though: gotta get back to the 26-and-up containment area before the snipers come for me.

    Y’all need to chillax. Making generalizations about entire age groups is pretty lamesquad. Surely there is a non-spiteful activity in which you can participate? I hear there’s a youth mixer AND a bingo night at the Elks Club down the way.

    Reply

    • Brian #

      Ah hell nah! Elks Club geriatrics can’t hold order with farts and stale rolos nothing can save this comment board only option is go all the way- Blazing! Ry1 v Ry1!1! http://youtu.be/KJMxGFco57Y I get gatling gun, I called it first I called it!!

      No but seriously, they’re usually such nice kids on OTI, I think they’re just crazy over TJ Maxx insane savings and with fourth of July and Transformers 3D things just got hyper-stimulated, a perfect storm none saw coming.

      Reply

  13. Jessica #

    The only thing that is dumb as shit in this article is that stupid ad copy is not evidence of the freaking “decline of the English language”.

    For fuck’s sake. People have been bemoaning this supposed decline ever since writing became popular. It’s dumb as shit.

    (Excuse all my language. :P)

    Reply

  14. Stokes OTI Staff #

    Old School: Martinis.
    Old People: One glass of red wine per day, for the health benefits.
    Old Fashioned: Old Fashioneds.

    ?

    Reply

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