Naked launch may be bad fit for M&S

Marks & Spencer’s poster campaign featuring a naked woman has upset religious groups. Is any publicity good publicity, or is it courting a trendier market at the expense of the cardie-clad faithful?

A d executives at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R knew there could be trouble. They were creating the first ad campaign for strait-laced high-street retailer Marks & Spencer and suspected it might upset religious groups.

The TV ads feature a naked size 16 model, who runs through a field, shouting: “I’m normal!” The poster ads show her standing, disrobed, in a field with her rear-end on full display.

Rainey Kelly predicted that strict Christians and Jews might be upset by the sight of a woman’s naked posterior on posters around the country. Was M&S ready to break the “bum barrier”?

The agency took the unusual step of showing pictures of the model’s naked bottom to representatives of the Church of England and the British Board of Jews before going ahead with the campaign. The religious leaders were, the agency claims, completely at ease with the prospect of the posters appearing near religious sites such as synagogues and churches.

But the reaction when the posters went up took M&S by surprise. Even after such precautions, religious Muslims and Jews united to deface the ads by tearing off the naked bottoms. They claimed the posters were “pornographic” and said it was insensitive to put them up near religious centres (MW last week).

Analysts say the “bold” campaign will help rejuvenate M&S’s ailing brand image. M&S may be looking longingly at French Connection’s success with the foul-mouthed FCUK campaign. The creator of the ads – outspoken Brummie Trevor Beattie – was, uncharacteristically, unavailable for comment.

The &£27m M&S campaign, which broke last month, uses the strapline “Exclusively for Everyone”. It was unveiled after the company announced a sharp dive in profits in May, from &£546.1m to &£417.5m: well down on the &£1bn plus that the chain was pulling in a few years ago.

Analyst Mike Godliman, of research company Verdict, says: “The secret of good advertising is that people have a view about it. The message that the ‘naked’ ad has sent is that not only is the retailer now ready to advertise but is also ready to take a risk. And the FCUK campaign has proven that advertising can reinvigorate a brand if it manages to create an interest.”

Without doubt, the ad has created a buzz in the industry and the market. The retail giant may be obliged to replace some of the posters after the complaints from religious groups, but it maintains that the campaign only aims to ditch its staid image and introduce a new sizing initiative.

The Advertising Standards Authority has also received 54 complaints about the poster but has ruled that the ad can continue to run (MW October 5).

Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R claims the posters have not been replaced in response to the activities of religious groups, since the poster burst for the campaign has already finished. “We did realise that the ad is a very bold image, which was why we approached relevant bodies like the Church of England and the British Board of Jews before going ahead,” says James Murphy, the agency’s managing partner.

He adds: “There is nothing sexual about the ad. It is a celebration of a woman’s body. M&S is talking to its customers and saying that it has stylish clothes for every size. This is a populist campaign to create a desire for M&S products.”

A spokeswoman for M&S says: “Yes, we did want the new advertising to look different from what was expected of M&S. Advertising is designed to tell a story to the customers and then attract them to the product.

“Our whole rebranding strategy not only involves this new look through advertising, but also the opening of new concept stores, where we would be selling lifestyles.”

But can the “I’m normal” M&S ad work the same magic that FCUK did for French Connection?

The FCUK campaign, created by TBWA/London – including the most recent execution, “Everyone’s Talking FCUK” – seems to have taken on its own brand identity.

Retail Intelligence analyst Clive Vaughan says: “French Connection is a leading-edge fashion retailer and the FCUK slogan is slightly naughty and hard-edged. An attempt by M&S to copy that would not be right. It needs to do something totally different – something its customers would be comfortable with.

“The naked woman ad is surprising, but it seems to make a point. It has helped to get people talking about M&S and might get them back to the stores.”

French Connection insists its surging sales are not only due to the high-impact FCUK slogan, but also to its “good value products”.

US clothing chain Gap is also trying to make its brand a talking point. It announced last week that it would appoint an outside ad agency for the first time.

Gap will hire an agency temporarily, for its Christmas 2000 campaign only. The retailer refused to divulge the details of the campaign and dismissed industry observers who have called Gap “arrogant” for proposing to cynically exploit and then fire an agency once it had acquired its next Big Idea.

Gap’s second-quarter results showed a two per cent drop in store sales against an increase of eight per cent in the same period last year.

Vaughan says: “The demographics of the M&S customer, even today, are predominantly white, female and middle-class. So its brand image does not need to change. It needs to reassure its customers because they are still very loyal. French Connection, on the other hand, is a fashion retailer.”

Godliman comments: “M&S is a long-standing British brand which, for many years, did not even have to advertise. Suddenly, it desperately needs to get people back into its stores. The challenge is to create a new brand image – hence this bold campaign.

“But any campaign can start to look tired after a while. The reason Gap and FCUK are still around is because the advertising they do complements their products.”

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