Do shock tactics work in retail ads?

Harvey Nichols
Harvey Nichols

Has Harvey Nichols damaged its brand or are its ads enlivening a bland sector, John Tylee wonders.

Is Harvey Nichols really as desperate as the models in its latest campaign, who appear to be suffering bladder malfunctions at the prospect of the Knightsbridge store's summer sale?

There is certainly no reason for its senior managers to be rushing to the loo, the company having delivered record profits in the year to March 2012. And it is much the same story at its big rival, Selfridges, which last year reported a 19 per cent surge in profits to £127 million.

So much for the theory that the entire retail fashion sector is down the toilet. While high-street retailers are under the cosh, upmarket stores such as Harvey Nichols are finding a healthy demand for £65,000 alligator handbags from free-spending foreign shoppers attracted by the cheap pound.

So why should Harvey Nichols have apparently gone out of its way to alienate would-be customers who have branded the ads crass and off-putting?

Industry figures are equally critical. One agency boss with extensive retail experience suggests the campaign is ill-judged and risks patronising shoppers by suggesting that they are stupid.

Laurence Green, the 101 founding partner who numbers French Connection among his clients, says: "My guess is that the health of the brand has been dented by this little episode."

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the work is the product of a client that has overindulged its agency, DDB UK, which, in turn, took its eye off the ball during its recent merger with Adam & Eve.

In Harvey Nichols' defence, it must be said that the company has a long history of provocative advertising stretching back over the best part of two decades, often forcing the Advertising Standards Authority to referee.

Back in 1997, it escaped ASA censure over charges of sexism against a poster depicting a woman wearing a dog lead. More recently, the watchdog declined to ban the company's "walk of shame" Christmas ad, despite charges that it was offensive and stereotyped women who have casual sex.

As a result, Harvey Nichols has become the standard-bearer for edgy advertising in a sector where much creative work is ho-hum. The only retailers that ran it close were French Connection, which dropped its FCUK advertising in 2005 after concluding it had become "unfashionable", and Benetton, which caused controversy with Oliviero Toscani's work promoting tolerance, anti-racism and multiculturalism.

Some see a direct link between less ballsy advertising and the current state of both retailers. French Connection issued its third profit warning of the year in May, while Benetton posted a 28 per cent fall in net profits for 2011. That said, Benetton's Cannes Grand Prix-winning "unhate" campaign has succeeded in gaining huge industry and media attention.

"When edgy advertising stops, these companies lose sales," Tiger Savage, the former M&C Saatchi deputy creative director turned luxury brands and fashion consultant, says. "It is because they no longer stand for anything."

Not that anybody is expecting the latest Harvey Nichols initiative to herald a deluge of new campaigns from other brands that do not just push the envelope but topple the entire stationery cupboard to make themselves heard.

"Most fashion advertising sticks to a formula that has hardly changed since the 60s," Jonathan Trimble, the managing partner at 18 Feet & Rising, which handles Selfridges, says. "Fashion has always been more about generating PR and word-of-mouth."


Laurence Green, founding partner, 101

"I don't think this is the inevitable advertising endgame, however competitive fashion is right now.

"There has always been plenty of audacious work - from Gucci to FCUK - and there is still plenty of stuff that is cutting through and being remembered without resorting to shock tactics.

"But there is a point where a will to be 'audacious' - however much 'on-brand' - compromises good judgment. And where effective short-term salesmanship (there is no doubt people now know Harvey Nicks has a sale on) actually does collateral damage.

"For all the fashion, advertising and economic cycles, all that matters is the brand's long-term health."


Tiger Savage, founder, Tiger's Eye

"It's possible that we will see more of this kind of advertising in the future, but it has to be right for the brand. It suits Harvey Nichols because it's an 'out-there' kind of store with a quite radical offering.

"But what works for Harvey Nichols wouldn't be right for Harrods or Liberty, which have a lot more history attached to them and are seen as a bit more straight-laced.

"However, I'm certain that when advertisers in the fashion sector stop doing interesting things, they lose sales - as has happened to French Connection and Benetton. Companies are trying to protect their margins by playing it safe."


Jonathan Trimble, managing partner, 18 Feet & Rising

"The reason there is so little edgy creative work from fashion retailers - and why we won't be seeing more of it in the future - is that there is so little of it. What's more, most fashion print work is based on a formula that hasn't really changed since the 60s.

"The result is that magazine ads look more like clothes catalogues and are really a means to get more editorial coverage.

"Today, fashion retailing is PR-driven and dependent on word-of-mouth. Retailers are much more interested in staging events that will get them talked about."


Peter York, social commentator

"The Harvey Nichols ads look like something out of a 90s 'lads' mag' done by what could only be a British agency. Half of me says they are awful and coarse. The other half says they're terribly funny.

"Will there be more ads of this kind from fashion retailers? Not from those at the high end, which are mostly foreign-owned and prefer to do their creative work in-house, shoot it in Paris, Hong Kong or New York and push it around the world. While they might like a bit of suggestiveness, they find UK agencies too crass."

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