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Posted at 05:15 PM ET, 02/10/2012

Ellen DeGeneres and the suddenly cool JC Penney

In the blink of an eye, JC Penney has become cool.

Yes, that retailing behemoth that has been the home of all things functional but unhip across the decades is suddenly almost as cool, in a corporate way, as Apple.

This new status is not because of its new logo or its new strategy of doing away with promotional sales or even because of its choice of
Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres with first lady Michelle Obama. (Michael Rozman - AP)
comedian Ellen DeGeneres as its new spokeswoman.

JC Penney became cool when it stood up to what Donny Deutsch, chairman of the advertising company Deutsch Inc., called “corporate terrorism” in an appearance Thursday on the “Today” show.

The retailer came under fire from the conservative nonprofit group One Million Moms after hiring DeGeneres. “Funny that JC Penney thinks hiring an open homosexual spokesperson will help their business when most of their customers are traditional families,” One Million Moms said on its Web site. “More sales will be lost than gained unless they replace their spokesperson quickly. Unless JC Penney decides to be neutral in the culture war then their brand transformation will be unsuccessful.” The group urged its members to call JC Penney’s customer service lines and complain.

“By jumping on the pro-gay bandwagon, JC Penney is attempting to gain a new target market and in the process will lose customers with traditional values that have been faithful to them over all these years,” One Million Moms said.

Making DeGeneres the focus of this kind of campaign seems an odd strategy. She has not only survived anti-gay sentiment in the United States but has thrived after going through some hard times. The ratings of her successful 1990s ABC sitcom plummeted after she made public the fact that she is a lesbian on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and shortly afterward her character on her sitcom came out of the closet. A 2001 CBS sitcom in which Ellen played a lesbian didn’t make it through the first season.

But when she stopped playing a gay character and instead just presented herself for exactly who she is on “Ellen,” her daytime talk show, she drew a large and loyal fan base, which encompasses a wide range of people, including moms. She has won numerous Emmy Awards and People’s Choice Awards. She has also been a spokeswoman for American Express and Cover Girl.

On her show, DeGeneres, who is married to the actress Portia de Rossi, doesn’t hide her sexuality, nor does she take a confrontational approach. Her sexuality, like her sense of humor, her passion for dance, her love for animals and nature, her support for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, are all just part of who she is.

So it was something of a departure on Wednesday when she spoke about the controversy, thanking JC Penney for standing by the decision to hire her and pointing out that One Million Moms had only about 40,000 “Likes” on Facebook. (Ellen DeGeneres has more than 2 million.)

Then she said: “If you’re just getting to know me, I want to be clear. Here are the values that I stand for. I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me those are traditional values. That’s what I stand for.”

Even with all the good will that DeGeneres draws – which is probably the reason JC Penney hired her in the first place – the retailer that wants to become “America’s favorite store” might have been expected to back away from the controversy.

But JC Penney’s chief executive, Ron Johnson, said in an interview Thursday on “CBS This Morning” that he didn’t second-guess the decision to hire DeGeneres for even a moment.

“We all kind of trust her,” said Johnson, who previously worked for Apple and Target. “And she’s a very honest, straightforward person with extraordinary values.”

He added: “It’s been unbelievably wonderful to work with someone who is so kind, so gracious, so funny, who just, I think, captures what America is about.”

Meanwhile, Twitter has been awash with comments like this one from @cajungal2608: “Loving #JCP for sticking with #Ellen! you don't need those customers if you're gonna be discriminating!”

By Carla Baranauckas  |  05:15 PM ET, 02/10/2012

 
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