OPINION: Mills on ... Carphone Warehouse

Whoever it was who said you should never underestimate the British public's taste only got it half right. There are also times, it seems, when you can never underestimate their ability to take offence at the most innocuous of suggestions.

This applies particularly to animals, as Royal Sun Alliance discovered 18 months ago with its spoof lost dog posters for Lucky, the brand mascot of More Th>n. These posters confused hundreds of animal lovers, who then protested so strongly that the ASA was forced to reprimand the client and its agency, Ogilvy & Mather. Personally, if the public had complained about the posters as examples of bad advertising, then my faith in the British consumer's taste and judgment might have been restored.

Still, as Carphone Warehouse is now discovering, you take risks with the animal lobby at your peril. Its offence is to run a TV ad for the key Christmas selling season comparing the purchase of a phone with that of buying an unwanted pet for Christmas. Having asked and been granted permission, Clemmow Hornby Inge altered the famous National Canine Defence League endline to: "A phone is for life, not just for Christmas." Cue mass outrage (well, OK, 58 complaints so far) to the Independent Television Commission from outraged animal lovers claiming the ad trivialises the issue of cruelty to animals. It's enough to make you weep, but at the same time it's impossible not to have a certain admiration for the organisational and networking skills of the animal lobby, not to mention the fact that they never seem to mind how ridiculous they look.

I rather like the ad. To a tear-jerking piece of music, we see what looks like an RSPCA inspector talking to camera. "You see it all the time," he says. "Especially at this time of year. But you never get hardened to it," he adds. As he talks, we see various scenes of abandoned phones, including bin bag in an alleyway, from which a "volunteer" tenderly rescues a phone. "Some people don't understand the commitment involved," the inspector continues. "Or sometimes they just want the very latest toy." He then goes on to explain that it doesn't have to be so because, thanks to Carphone Warehouse, "phones are now leading happier lives and together we can end the suffering".

As Christmas ads go, it certainly makes a change from the relentless buy! buy! buy! dross pumped out by most other retailers at this time of year. It's funny, it's a catchy idea and it's relevant. If I was going to buy someone a mobile phone for Christmas, chances are I'd end up in a Carphone Warehouse.

It's also strategically interesting, trying as it does to position Carphone Warehouse as a service partner to mobile phone users. Margins in the ultra-competitive phone market must be getting thinner by the day, so there's logic in anything that decreases reliance on hand-set sales and increases opportunities for higher-margin, longer-term relationships with customers.

It's at this point that, however, I part company with Carphone Warehouse and CHI. I get the strategy, it's just that the service offer itself is uncompelling. Such as it is, it appears to comprise the ability to sell me ring tones, fancy covers and a number storage facility. Of the three, only the latter seems much use, as demonstrated by another ad in which a woman loses her phone but is saved because she has stored her address book with Carphone Warehouse. Now that's what I call useful, but if the other two are what Carphone Warehouse thinks are the sorts of things it needs to become a service partner, then I would suggest it needs to think a bit harder.

Dead cert for a Pencil? No chance.

File under ... S for strategic.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Can I have one of those cute little

Mowblies for Christmas?"

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