French Connection's innuendo-laden fcuk campaign, consigned to the Advertising Standards Authority's sin bin on numerous occasions over the past few years, is finally being relegated to advertising history's dustbin.
Trevor Beattie, TBWA\London's chairman and creative director, conceived the fcuk concept in 1997 when he noticed the abbreviation on an internal French Connection fax. He still has the napkin with the original idea - hailed as one of his personal triumphs - scribbled on it, framed on his office wall.
French Connection found that the ensuing controversy suited its brand goals and the strength of the concept has ensured the company has run two hefty campaigns under the fcuk banner every year since.
The majority of these ads have used an fcuk innuendo as their central theme and, although in 2001 the ASA banned French Connection from using it in a sentence where it could be interpreted as "fuck", the advertising has pushed this ruling to the limit. In 2001, the company ran poster ads promoting its fcukinkybugger website (which were later banned) and, earlier this year, ads publicising a tie-up with Boots used the line: "Fcuk vanity."
"It's an amazing and extraordinary campaign that has taken French Connection to an entirely different dimension. From being a not particularly top-of-mind store, it has become part of British culture," Ben Priest, the executive creative director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, says.
"It's not a classic ad campaign; it didn't stick to the rules - as a fashion campaign, it should, by rights, have featured a model in the shop's clothes. Instead, it has created a whole language and attitude," he continues.
The ads have not gone down so well with the regulators - since the campaign's inception, the ASA has received more than 535 complaints about French Connection's print and poster ads. Things came to a head last month when, for the second time since 1997, the ASA ordered the pre-vetting of all of the company's posters over the next two years.
However, this wrangling with the regulators appears not to have had any negative effect on the brand - in fact, quite the opposite. Priest says it's almost become part of its strategy. "The controversy makes it cool and edgy and because of its target it can afford to take risks to get talked about," he says.
The complaints haven't had an impact on sales either and, in 1998, the year after the campaign launched, French Connection recorded a 32 per cent jump in year-end profits and a 13 per cent increase in turnover. In 1999, turnover and profits were up more than 25 per cent. Between 1999 and 2003, sales doubled and profits trebled.
TBWA's contribution to these sales increases has never gone unnoted.
Stephen Marks, French Connection's founder and executive chairman, has credited the advertising as a significant factor in the company's success. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2003, he said French Connection's strong performance had been driven by "great product, great-looking stores and great advertising". He also told the Financial Times that the advertising had been: "Hugely successful for us."
However, things are changing. Although the company's finances remain healthy - with 2003 seeing a 29 per cent rise in annual profits - its fourth-quarter retail sales were disappointing and this sluggish performance has continued into 2004.
This, coupled with news that Marks was placing between eight and nine million shares to pay for his well-publicised divorce, has resulted in a slump in French Connection's share price - it has dropped 10.7 per cent over the past month.
Given this performance, it is perhaps not surprising that a change of strategy is in order.
"French Connection has always been a leader with its advertising and this season is no different. We felt that all the advertising out there was beginning to look similar and decided to do something new," a French Connection spokeswoman says.
But the fcuk logo isn't being dumped, as both Beattie and French Connection are quick to emphasise. The retailer's spokeswoman says: "The fcuk brand will continue to be a central part of our branding for the foreseeable future."
"We're not dumping the logo; it's the name of the brand," Beattie adds.
However, while it will continue to appear on French Connection merchandise, it won't feature in its above-the-line advertising. Instead, the next campaign, launching on 20 September, is positioned as "anti-advertising".
It won't carry any brand name at all.
A 30-second spot will show denim-clad youths on a road trip across a desert with the line "Don't you just hate being influenced by the great big offensive logo at the end?" before fading to a blank screen.
After seven years of fcuk this and fcuk that, you might think that the TBWA ads are beginning to look a bit jaded. Not everyone thinks so. Priest says: "I don't think they look tired - they are still brave and bold."
The shock-value of the implied profanity may have diminished over time, but Priest reckons the fcuk line remains provocative and racy. "I can see how the continuing controversy with the regulators would make life difficult," he says, suggesting that this may have contributed to the decision to devise a new strategy.
Leslie Ali, a managing partner at WCRS, also thinks there's mileage left in the ads and says that change for change's sake is not a good enough reason to alter them. However, she concedes: "It's all about maintaining the brand voice. You can scrap the executional voice if the attitudinal thing is maintained."
Sounds reasonable enough, but can French Connection continue to project this attitude without relying on the acronym? Who the fcuk knows?
FCUK VERSUS THE REGULATORS
July 1997: French Connection "fcuk fashion" posters by GGT are banned by the ASA for being likely to cause serious offence.
August 1997: Despite the ban, the initials return in the "fcuk advertising" poster and print ads. The ads are deemed acceptable because the initials are separated by full stops and the ad carries the line "fcuk is a trademark of French Connection UK".
January 2001: French Connection is again ticked off by the ASA for advertising the opening of a London store as "one humungous fcuk" in a press ad. French Connection cites the fact that the ASA received only one complaint for the ad, supporting its view that almost everybody understood that fcuk referred to the company name. The ASA rules it should not be used in an ad if it can be interpreted as "fuck".
April 2001: The ASA's Committee of Advertising Practice says it will pre-vet French Connection posters for two years following 132 complaints about its fcukinkybugger.com campaign.
June 2001: "Fcukinkybugger" cinema ads escape censure, despite receiving six complaints. The ASA rules that the tone of the ad was relatively mild compared with some "15" films.
August 2003: The ASA rules that an e-mail promoting French Connection clothes and condoms is offensive. It contains slogans that appear on the shirts, such as: "Practise safe sex, go fcuk yourself." The total number of complaints received by the ASA to date is 535 concerning 149 fcuk print and poster ads.
February 2004: A campaign for the fcuk cosmetic range is rapped by the ASA as it could be interpreted as "fuck vanity".
March 2004: The ASA asks French Connection not to use fcuk in unsolicited catalogues following a complaint.
July 2004: Once again, CAP orders that all French Connection posters must be pre-vetted following complaints about the posters for its fcuk FM radio station.