By  on February 15, 2006

BOSTON — Wal-Mart will begin airing new television commercials this week aimed at convincing upper-middle-class shoppers that it offers more than bargains on household staples.

The "Look Beyond the Basics" ad campaign features nine 15-second spots of actors portraying shoppers and recalling how they discovered stylish merchandise such as a Metro 7 outfit or a plasma TV while running a regular errand to Wal-Mart. Two commercials will air this week, with the rest rolling out through the month. There is also a print component that will run in People, Sports Illustrated and Us Weekly, among other publications.

The campaign comes as the world's biggest retailer seeks to improve its profits by selling more high-margin items and close the gap in this category with rival Target Stores, which is growing by promoting affordable luxuries such as cashmere sweaters and 400 thread-count sheets.

Target's cerebral "Design for All" ad campaign is in sharp contrast to Wal-Mart's standard ad fare of the yellow smiley symbol bouncing around, slashing prices.

Wal-Mart shoppers "want value, but at the same time, they want style, excitement, innovation and fun," said company senior vice president of marketing Stephen Quinn. "Our objective with this campaign is to show that shoppers can find not only things they need at Wal-Mart, but also things they want."

His language echoes Target's store-level marketing campaigns that tout both "needs" (consumables such as toilet paper) and "wants" (impulse buys such as an Isaac Mizrahi-designed dog sweater).

"I have been waiting for Wal-Mart to begin to respond to Target," said Boston University professor John Verret, who cofounded ad agency Arnold Worldwide and ran campaigns for McDonald's and TJX Cos.

He said Wal-Mart's smiley campaigns are dated and laden with negative baggage. "Whenever I hear about Wal-Mart beating up on a supplier, I see the smiley face chopping down prices."

Sam Shahid, creative director of Manhattan-based advertising firm Shahid & Co., said "Look Beyond the Basics" should hit the mark because it taps into a consumer trend, prevalent across all income levels.

"Wal-Mart's message is that all the things you dream of — the plasma TV and video cameras — you can afford because they're at Wal-Mart," he said. "Who isn't going to respond to that?"But Eli Portnoy, chief strategist of branding firm The Portnoy Group, said Wal-Mart is on "dangerous ground" in recasting its image in a sleeker, chicer package.

"The implicit question behind all these ads for their core customer is, ‘Is everything else going to get more expensive?'" he said. The core customers, he added, "do not go in expecting to be pleasantly surprised by upmarket goods."

Wal-Mart's chief marketing officer, John Fleming, a former Target merchandising executive, told Wall Street analysts in October that Wal-Mart would no longer use a "one-size-fits-all" approach to marketing and would target specific campaigns to consumer segments where there is new opportunity.

Wal-Mart executives have said there is somewhat restricted growth potential in catering only to its "loyalist" low-income customers.

"Look Beyond the Basics," follows Wal-Mart's "Home for the Holidays" campaign featuring Destiny's Child and other music stars, which ran through the holiday season.

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