OPINION: Cowen on ... Argos

If the Reduced Shakespeare Company ever decide to move their act on to film, then they would be well-advised to sign up Paul Weiland to direct the thing. Mind you, after cramming Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper's debut script for Argos into a medium-sized ad slot, whirling through the complete works of the bard in an hour or so might not seem challenging enough.

The launch spot for Argos' new TV advertising races through so much plot that it's almost impossible to believe it's only on screen for 40 seconds. The loyal PA arranges all the material for her rock star boss' European tour, only to find that he's been cleaned out of house and home by the lawyers for his grasping ex-wife but, nevertheless, he heads off on his round of comeback gigs leaving her with the task of redesigning his apartment (pause for breath).

She, being the bright young spark that Julie Sawalha always seems to play, heads off to Argos and decks the place out in designer black leather furnishings.

He returns from tour, digs his new pad but then asks who she got in to furnish it. She nearly makes a catastrophic error by telling him the truth but manages to redeem the situation by explaining it's all the work of a hip Lithuanian designer called "Ar Ghoos". She spots the new bumper Argos catalogue just in time to whip it behind her back and not spoil the illusion.

It's no mean achievement to communicate all of this and it's even more impressive when the work remains reasonably engaging at the end. This ad resists being overwhelmed by its convoluted plot and its two central performances are strangely entertaining. Whole swathes of character and storyline are communicated through single, densely packed but well-executed shots. I suspect, though, the reason it feels so coherent is that it covers familiar territory. Ever since cheeky young tykes disobeyed their mums by buying cheaper laundry powder, the emperor's-new-clothes scenario whereby a bargain product is mistaken for a luxury one has been an advertising staple.

It's a formula that's appropriate for Argos at the moment - given the store's expressed desire to move upmarket. This is a strategic shift borne of strength rather than weakness. Argos' sales growth has slowed dramatically in recent months but it is still expected to outperform the UK retail sector. However, the average spend per customer at the stores has been declining for some time and the management clearly believe that Argos can benefit from challenging what customers think it's good for (duvet covers and ironing boards in most cases).

It's hard to imagine such reconsideration being provoked by Ogilvy & Mather's cheap and cheery ads. They fitted the overall positioning of Argos as far as price was concerned but cut between offers so quickly that you barely registered what the store sold. By concentrating on one unexpected product area rather than the full range, this ad combats such awareness erosion, challenges perceptions and successfully banishes memories of Sunshine on a Rainy Day and Melinda Messenger.

You wonder, though, how flexible the creative framework will prove when Argos starts to roll out tactical messages. Richard E Grant's character seems to have been designed specifically for the furniture ad. He looks and sounds like a cross between Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and Steven Tyler, thus adding to the impression of high-quality interior design while fitting a plot which demands he's a pretentious idiot that knows nothing about these things. Whether this character can stretch to accommodate other product areas remains to be seen. He presumably knows how to use a stereo, for example. Let's hope he doesn't end up sticking on the mighty Quo.

Dead cert for a Pencil? More chance of an effectiveness award.
File under ... C for complicated.
What would the chairman's wife say? Can the bloke from Changing Rooms
really play the guitar?

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