Given the grief and anger that’s ricocheting around the world, it’s hardly surprising that something as innocuous as a holiday ad would become a kind of cultural Rorschach Test. The first target of the season comes from a deeply satisfying ad from M&S, the British retailer well known for making the most of the holidays. Within a week of its release, it’s been called anti-Palestinian, anti-child, anti-planet and plain old anti-Christmas.
Because our readership is mainly in the U.S., Marketing Daily ignores most ads from the other side of the pond. That’s a shame, because it often means missing some of the best ads in retail. (And sorry, not sorry, but this writer is still waiting for a British holiday ad to top John Lewis’s “Buster the Boxer” in 2016.)
It’s rare that anything manages to get on the wrong side of so many Brits so fast. Themed “Love Thismas, Not Thatmas,” the M&S spot stems from something everyone knows is true. While most people love a holiday tradition -- a latke here, an Advent calendar there -- traditions often become handcuffs. And in an era when more people resent over-the-top holiday consumerism, there are plenty of conventions we think are just plain stupid.
The spot opens with the adored Hannah (“Ted Lasso”) Waddingham, trying to rescue a failed snowman with wine and a hot glue gun. Singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor uses a mini-blowtorch to light up a pile of Christmas cards she won’t be sending. Tan (“Queer Eye”) France tosses a board game into an aquarium. Then Zawe (“Not Safe for Work”) Ashton uses a bat to bash Elf on the Shelf into the stratosphere.
The gleeful drama is set to Ray BLK’s cover of Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” The campaign is from Mother, the retailer’s newly appointed ad agency.
The first problem: M&S posted an outtake on Instagram, with a close-up of red and green paper hats burning in the fire. At least 40 people complained to the U.K.’s advertising watchdog group, saying they could be taken as an attack on the Palestinian flag. M&S apologized and quickly yanked the post.
Others griped that since the whole theme is about throwing whatever irks you about Christmas -- from paper hats to tree ornaments made from toilet paper rolls -- in the trash, it’s sending a lousy sustainability message.
A different group claimed the campaign is an example of grouchiness that should not be tolerated in the land of flaming plum puddings and mince pies. “You have a duty as our national department store to keep the spirit of Christmas alive for our children,” one teacher harrumphed on X.
And that social-media racket was enough to wake up the “Go woke, go broke” mob, who are accusing M&S not just of grinchiness but politically correct grinchiness. They’re wailing: “All we have left is Christmas!”
The world is on edge. And we suspect many marketers will play it safe this year, judging by the teaser John Lewis just released for its ad. But we’re betting the M&S ad will connect with shoppers.
A good sign? The social media comments defending it. “I can't believe how quickly we have become the reactionary Americans I used to laugh at,” says one Redditor.
Ouch. As U.S. retailers unleash more holiday ads, we’ll get our share of seasonal spats here in the colonies. Marketing in a divided world is more challenging than ever. And we’re hoping some marketers remember that the most provocative campaigns can start meaningful conversations.
See what you think, below.