THE GAP BACK THEN...
The Gap's "swing" commercial featured guys and girls in t-shirts and khakis on a bright white background- dancing, swinging, moving to the jitter-inducing "Jump, Jive and Wail."
The campaign's crown-jewel version used "digital photogrammetry - morphing between two still photographs - to give us the effect of a freeze frame camera swing around suspended dancers." 
I remember people talking about that campaign--smiling, admiring. A Google search shows people still talk about their feelings for the Swing campaign, using words like "fun," "love," and "best."
That this campaign would help to elevate the Gap brand was to be expected. But a complete surprise was the campaign's socio-behavioral impact on young people. Swing music and swing dancing all of a sudden returned to center-stage. It was no longer only "old timers" or professional dancers, but the young and enthusiastic never-danced-before folk that filled the urban dance-halls and dance studios, learning and practicing the Gap commercial moves. And young people everywhere began to dress like the actors and dancers in the campaign.
The Swing campaign was followed by other, equally inventive campaigns that cemented the Gap as an icon of clean lines and happy, wearable designs. It turned the Gap into a leader and an innovator of effective advertising and set its success as a benchmark against which other companies measure the impact of their advertising.
But despite its relentless attempts to replicate its success (and ride its tailwind)--Gap, I would argue, hasn't been able to put its finger on success' pulse. What it thought was a winning formula--upbeat music, young and hip models, causal wear, innovative camera work--hasn't quite delivered on expectations. Even after adopting celebrities (Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Orlando Bloom) to lead its campaigns, the Gap hasn't been able to enjoy the same levitation it once had.
THE GAP TODAY...
The Gap today is facing many challenges. Its brand image is unclear, the quality of its designs and fabrics has declined, and in 2005 it made the mistake of insufficiently differentiating its lines from those sold at Old Navy.
From a place of solid market leadership, the Gap has seen its piece of the pie shrink as competitors such as Abacrombe and Fitch, American Apparel, and The Limited hoard customers' spending power are develop a loyal customer base.
Because it knows that its perceived image and identity have been key to customers' purchasing behaviors and to building customers' loyalty, Gap has been trying different paths to regaining its "goodness of brand."
It has tried various additives--such as graphic decorations on its Jeans campaign and bright coloring in its summer campaign--but these didn't induce much change. Now, it seems, Gap has gone to the other extreme and is applying a form of Reversed Allergy Elimination technique to identify what has been ailing it all along. "Take out everything," the Gap doctor ordered, "and start from scratch, introducing one thing at a time to see what produces a reaction."
Sadly, the result is this season's campaign.
Gray, black, and sepia/dirt coloring, solemn images of nearly emaciated women, hard edges, and stamped lettering. Even with the energetic Audrey Hepburn resurrected from her grave, the Gap is nowhere near the brand we loved to love.
According to spokeswoman Erika Archambault, the 1960's-inspired campaign is designed to "go back to what we've been known and loved for...it's a nod back to our heritage."
What Gap may have failed to realize is that its idea of its heritage may not be the same as that of its customers. The world has changed, and with it, customer preferences, fashion savvy, and the apparel industry. What Gap considers its heritage--hooded sweatshirts and comfortable jeans--may no longer be perceived by contemporary customers as offering the same value it once did.
To consider a period-inspired approach is to ignore the cultural shifts that have taken place in the past decade and to rely on Nostalgia. It is a feeble--almost desperate--attempt to recapture the elements of a once successful approach while ignoring what it was that made it so.
The Khaki-Swing commercial wasn't really about the 40's, or about happy people or dancing people and it most certainly was not about Khakis or t-shirts either. It was about a way of being. A life style. An identity. Watching that commercial produced a rare emotional congruence between what viewers saw and how they wanted to feel about themselves; it mirrored what most people want to feel and have- happiness, carefree attitude, connectedness, togetherness, confidence, a sense of community, and individuality. It was this experience to which people responded--an experience that until the Gap came out with its campaign, wasn't associated with an apparel manufacturer but once established, it set new standards--a new baseline which Gap, and its competitors, have been trying to meet and surpass ever since.
...stay tuned for The Gap- Part Two: recapturing the brand feeling.