OPINION: Cowen on ... Marks & Spencer

Christmas in three words? Let's see. Sentimental and nostalgic?



Or awkward and embarrassing? 25 December can turn out either way - and

so can Marks & Spencer's yuletide ad from Rainey Kelly Campbell

Roalfe/Y&R.



It all depends on your mood when you see it. The line between

heartwarming and stomach-churning is a fine one and this ad straddles it

like Santa Claus on a moped.



In its proper context - stuffed into a break towards the end of It's a

Wonderful Life when most of the audience are brimful with sherry - this

ad might raise the odd smile. In the cold light of a November TV

schedule, with the festive mood still to kick in, it just feels

unbearably cheesy.



That's always a risk when you deal in the fuzzier emotions -which is

exactly what this spot does. Throughout the film, there's no attempt to

delineate a single actual reason why M&S should be your destination

store this Christmas. OK, there are some product shots subtly woven in

but they're never allowed to impinge upon a script that is pure,

unadulterated syrup.



M&S is attempting to wrap up all the nostalgia that gets slung around at

this time of year and brand the entire bundle, with no reason given

beyond the dodgy "three words" motif.



There's a contrast between this and, say, the Woolworths work, which

attempts to sell Christmas cheer while saying at least something about

the range the store offers. M&S is asking us to believe in a Santa's

grotto of a department store that can solve our every yuletide need at

one stop.



In these cynical days, we might need a little more evidence that this is

the case.



As recently as the summer, M&S was attempting to give us concrete

product-based reasons why it was still the right choice for the UK's

middle-class women. Rainey Kelly's TV work - the first ever put together

for the store - attempted to tie its future appeal to the

forward-looking Autograph fashion range. However, the spectacular

failure of the "normal" size 16 woman running naked up a hill instead

left a question mark over the position of the marketing supremo Alan

McWalter, not to mention Rainey Kelly's hold on the account.



That both appear slightly more secure now is due to an upturn in the

company's fortunes that last month brought M&S a 20 per cent rise in

half-year profits. At this point, a strong Christmas could put the store

on the road to recovery, while a weak one would damn it all over again.

It's tempting to see the choice of George Best as one of the store's

celebrity spokesmen as a nod towards this situation. Both have had rough

years, both are looking a little bit better and both have a lot of

goodwill behind them - if only they can avoid doing something

stupid.



M&S needs a big TV campaign to push Christmas sales but can't afford any

more risks. The response is a pitch for the hearts of the middle-England

constituency on which the store built its past successes, but which is

now threatening to go the way of the Daily Express readership. Within

these parameters, and at this time of year, it might just bypass their

cynicism and work. But that's all it can do.



M&S shouldn't kid itself that this nostalgic strategy is anything more

than a seasonal stopgap. Christmas comes just once a year and that

leaves a good ten months when people go shopping rationally. At best,

Zoe Ball and company will leave M&S where it was before the disastrous

size 16 experiment. After the New Year hangovers have worn off, it needs

to come up with something far more business-like.



Dead cert for a Pencil? The Rainey Kelly stocking will have to be filled

from elsewhere.



File this under? U for unambitious.



What would the chairman's wife say? What is it that we sell again, dear?



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