Payless

You remember those vintage bait-and-switch coffee commercials, where patrons of a fine dining restaurant would be astounded to discover that the delicious coffee they were drinking was actually Folgers?

Okay, maybe you don’t (because maybe I’m showing my age), but Payless ShoeSource recently employed a similar tactic when they faked a luxury boutique environment to showcase their footwear—with a healthy markup to reflect the posh setting. Taking over a former Armani location in Santa Monica, Calif., and renaming it “Palessi,” the discount footwear chain put their latest styles on display (with faux labels, of course), and invited a slew of influencers to see what they thought the shoes were really worth.

As reported by AdWeek: “Party goers, having no idea they were looking at discount staples from the mall scene, said they’d pay hundreds of dollars for the stylish shoes, praising the look, materials and workmanship. Top offer: $640, which translates to an 1,800 percent markup, and Palessi sold about $3,000 worth of product in the first few hours of the stunt.”

Videos on AdWeek’s site further add to the hilarity, as so-called fashion insiders preened and proclaimed the “Palessi” brand the next big thing in luxury footwear. And admittedly, iGuffawed ... and yet, wondered if I, too, might’ve fallen for this scam. After all, Payless has had a long-running collaboration with designer Christian Siriano, so they’ve considered how to remain fashion forward. Granted, I consider myself the type of fashion expert who can detect and dissect a knockoff within seconds (thanks to years spent in close proximity to New York City’s knockoff mecca, Canal Street), but how swayed am I by the cliche that you get what you pay for—even if you know damned well that you’re paying too much?

The ... revealing concept, which will run as ads on cable TV networks and social channels through the holidays, was apparently conceived in collaboration with the DCX Growth Accelerator agency. Of their unorthodox approach to this holiday campaign, chief creative officer Doug Cameron told AdWeek that Payless “wanted to push the social experiment genre to new extremes, while simultaneously using it to make a cultural statement.”

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“Payless customers share a pragmatist point of view,” he continued, “and we thought it would be provocative to use this ideology to challenge today’s image-conscious fashion influencer culture.”

In case you’re wondering (because I was), “Palessi” didn’t keep the money forked over for their inflated prices. Instead, buyers not only got their cash back but also free shoes—not a bad deal for what we’re certain was a fairly embarrassing moment, now broadcast for the world to see. And as Payless CMO Sarah Couch told AdWeek, it all comes back to the immortal question: “Doesn’t it feel good to Payless?”

“The campaign plays off of the enormous discrepancy,” she said. “[A]nd aims to remind consumers we are still a relevant place to shop for affordable fashion.”