Marks & Spencer mounts defence after complaints over ‘Thismas’ TV ad

—Issues unrelated to Instagram post removed by brand after Palestine backlash.—

By Daniel Farey-Jones

Britain’s famous Christmas advertising bonanza kicked off on Tuesday, and iconic retailer Marks & Spencer’s Clothing and Home quickly found itself in hot water over its bold new campaign from Mother.

The “Thismas” TV ad by Mother London, which first aired Tuesday, attracted 23 complaints to the U.K.’s ad watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) as well as pushback from disappointed organizations.

The campaign, “Love thismas (not thatmas)” features actress Hannah Waddingham, singer and podcast host Sophie Ellis-Bextor, presenter and style expert Tan France, and actress Zawe Ashton.

Set to Ray BLK’s version of “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” the ad follows the stars during the lead-up to Christmas as they begrudgingly take part in festive traditions and activities that are not necessarily their cup of tea.

Waddingham is shown finishing off a child’s snowman costume, while France decorates a tree with some unusual decorations, Ashton plays a game of charades, and Ellis-Bextor is melting marshmallows on top of a gingerbread house with a blow torch.

The complaints about the TV ad are separate to those about an Instagram post featuring party hats on a domestic fire, which some interpreted as anti-Palestinian because the hats were the same colours as the Palestinian flag.

M&S last night removed the Instagram post, apologized for any “unintentional hurt caused,” and explained that the image was an outtake from its TV ad, which was shot in August, before the situation in Israel and Gaza began.

According to the ASA, complaints about the TV ad centre on Christmas cards being burned with a blowtorch, and an elf puppet being batted from a rooftop.

“Complainants believe that these scenes might be distressing for children to see, that they encourage emulating dangerous behaviour and that they depict a negative sentiment of this occasion,” said the ASA.

“Our ad is definitely for the present-buyers (ie, the grown-ups) not the little ones,” said an M&S spokesperson. “And is intended to be fun, festive and a cheeky take on those things we love—and don’t love—to do at Christmas time. And for any concerned children (and adults), the elf used in the ad is a prop.”

Regarding the burning of the Christmas cards, the spokesperson said: “Our Christmas Clothing and Home ad is all about inspiring customers to focus on the things that matter most to them by just doing the things they love, and less of what they don’t. We’re bringing this message to life through playful and fun scenarios that exaggerate reality. Every precaution was taken to ensure fire safety on set, and we would always encourage customers to follow fire safety advice at home.”

Anna Braithwaite, M&S Clothing & Home marketing director, told Campaign before the backlash began that the spot reflects what was being heard from customers, who are “feeling very different than they were last Christmas.”

“Last Christmas, we really had just been coming out of Covid. That sense of community was definitely there,” said Braithwaite. But this year has been difficult for a lot of people who are concerned about interest rates, mortgage increases, and price inflation on “pretty much everything that we all have to buy.”

“The read we were getting from all the conversations was very simply that people were really looking forward to a brilliant Christmas with their friends and their families and their loved ones.

“And it was nothing more than—enjoy it, do what you love, take the pressure off yourself, do it in your own way.”

The TV ad also attracted criticism from other quarters, like the Greetings Cards Association, for depicting the burning of Christmas cards, and for the destruction of items that can be recycled.

“Advertisers have some of the loudest voices at Christmas and they have a responsibility to drive change in our purchasing habits,” said second-hand marketplace Gumtree’s chief marketing officer Hannah Rouch.

“This year’s ad is intended to be playful and fun—a tongue-in-cheeky take on Christmas traditions with scenarios that exaggerate reality,” said the M&S spokesperson. “As a business, we’re committed to driving circularity and sending zero waste to landfill.”

The volume of complaints does not necessarily spell trouble for brands. In 2021 the ASA received 5,009 complaints—the second-highest amount ever—about Tesco’s Christmas ad by Bartle Bogle Hegarty London for showing Santa displaying proof of his vaccine status in an airport.

However, it allowed the ad to remain on air after rejecting the premise of the complaints that Tesco was encouraging medical discrimination based on vaccine status.

In contrast, Waitrose & Partners issued an apology and re-edited its 2022 Christmas ad by Adam & Eve/DDB fewer than 10 days after it aired, following complaints from melanoma patients and survivors about a scene showing two farmers comparing their suntans, including 10 complaints to the ASA.

Waitrose cut the scene from the ad and apologized for “the upset caused,” adding it had not been the intention to “laugh at, or belittle such a serious matter.”

This article originally appeared at Campaign UK, with files from Charlotte Rawlings and The Message.