I was skeptical about Radio Shack’s Super Bowl commercial. And then I watched it…

Radio Shack is pretty bland… and it has been for as long as I remember.

I suppose there could have been a time when their business model was cutting-edge-meets-convenience: They could have been the go-to place for consumer technology with convenient locations in the mall. But if that was the case, it was decades ago… before I was old enough to pay attention to those kinds of things. By the time I was a teen, and shopping for my own electronics, Radio Shack was the place you went when you didn’t have a lot of money or choice or discernment.

They’re the place you buy extra cables because you just happen to be in the mall anyway. They’re quickly bypassed and even more quickly forgotten. I haven’t seen them advertise on TV in… well, ever.

So when I saw that Radio Shack was putting a commercial in the Super Bowl, I was surprised and skeptical.

And then I watched it.

Wow.

Frankly, it’s awesome. Watch it for yourself and then read why I think it’s awesome.

The commercial comes right out of the gate as both funny and self-effacing. “The 80’s called. They want their store back.” It’s funny because it’s not just a saying — the phone actually rang — turning a cliched insult in something even funnier. Plus the clerk’s perfect delivery of his line. Plus it instantly positions the commercial as self-effacing.

The fun really begins as the 80’s pour through the door. This is extended punchline of the commercial, where things really get good. An onslaught of stuff from the 1980’s bombards the commercial: Hulk Hogan, Alf, John Ratzenberger’s Cliff Claven, Mary Lou Retton, Eric Estrada, Chucky, Jason, the DeLorean from Back to the Future… and I could go on and on. Even the music and the animation (Awesome references to Q-Bert AND Ghostbusters AND the California Raisins!) contributed.

Here’s why the commercial is so remarkable:

  • Radio Shack was honest about their shortcomings and that seems to be nearly impossible for any company to do. I’m sure that many companies have great self-effacing commercials that were killed by the legal department or at the executive level because no one wants to admit that there is something catastrophically wrong with the company. Conversely, Dominoes is a company that recently won a lot of respect for its apologetically honest portrayal of its shortcomings, and this is a good lesson for any company that is famously flawed to use honesty in its marketing.
  • They were self-effacing. Poking fun at yourself is hard. If you don’t get it exactly right, you come across less than genuine, or you come across too harsh (which isn’t funny). It’s hard to do in person and it’s even harder to do in marketing. There is a hard-to-find sweet-spot and Radio Shack found it and executed perfectly.
  • One of the things that makes this commercial great is that it’s not just a couple of 1980’s visuals but A LOT of them. If they only had guest appearances by two or three 1980’s icons, the commercial would have fallen short. It would have been just another cheezy cameo. But it wasn’t. They stuffed the commercial to overflowing with 1980’s icons, and that made all the difference. Bonus: Because there are so many 1980’s references in the commercial, you have to watch it a couple of times to spot them all. I’ve seen the commercial more than half a dozen times and each time I see something new.
  • They played to a combination of nostalgia and anticipation. Their intended audience would remember how bland Radio Shack has been in the past. But they would also remember all of those great icons with heartfelt nostalgia. And then, they vanished from the commercial and the message (of cleaner, brighter, more modern stores) finished the commercial.

Here’s what Radio Shack has to do next:

Okay, they’ve made a great commercial. But that’s just the beginning. Now they have to deliver on their promise. They have to create stores that are modern.

But I think they may have to do something else, as well. It’s okay for them to occupy the lower-end of the consumer technology spectrum, if that’s where they want to be, because there’s a market for it and because their store locations are perfectly located to reach that audience. But they can’t just sell the same stuff in more modern-looking stores. They have to do more. They have to offer better stuff while still working within the budgetary confines of their target market. They might even need to cut back on the variety of inventory in their stores.

Alternatively, we could see them move their company in a different direction and aim for a place a little higher up in the consumer technology spectrum. We’ve seen other companies leverage clever commercials to revive their flagging images (Please refer to any Old Spice that stars Isaiah Mustafa).

I’m looking forward to the changes at Radio Shack. If they deliver on what the commercial promises, we could see a very compelling turnaround for the company.

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