Why adland snobs should relax and learn to love Status Quo
It's not enough to talk a good game on doing populist, commercially effective work during a cost of living crisis. You have to look outwards, question your prejudices, and loosen up.
I should preface this by saying I’m not posing as some working-class firebrand who is in a position to call out the adland snobs. I’m a fair way up the snob hierarchy myself. But I like to think I’m just about grounded enough to think twice about my own assumptions, one of them being: wow, isn’t the new M&S ad embarrassingly shit and a huge branding misstep? Here it is, Francis Rossi and all:
Terrible, isn’t it? Like some 1970s Woolworth’s ad, or a parody that belongs on The Apprentice. Just look at the excruciating lyrics, the hopelessly outdated band completely selling out, the people awkwardly dancing in the aisles, the TikTok ‘influencers’ gurning at the camera. Worst of all (serious face), this is an undoing of many years positioning M&S as a premium brand. Such are the perils of doing something in-house without a wise old ad agency to guide you. Bye Marks & Spencer, it was nice while it lasted!
This has certainly been the adland reaction so far. “Fucking. Hell.” posted Trevor Beattie to a chorus of horrified agreement on Twitter. (“This is not just any shite ad, this is an in-house agency shite ad” etc.) Over on LinkedIn, someone earnestly writes “It makes me sad” and concludes they forgot to involve a strategist in their in-house team. Much of the adverse reaction has come from people I like, and I’ll admit the ghost of a wince flashed across my face the first time I saw the ad.
But it only took a cursory glance through the backstory for the wince to disappear.
As many price-conscious shoppers have clocked long before most people in adland, Marks & Spencer has been on a journey in recent years. Long associated with Waitrose-adjacent Middle England quality, M&S Food has faced a challenge during straitened times: how to focus on value without jettisoning the reputation for quality. In 2019, they launched the ‘Remarksable’ value range (shit name, but remarksably effective so far), made up of over 100 everyday staples. Rather than aiming at bargain basement (because M&S can’t afford to price-match Aldi and Lidl across the board), the idea was to offer M&S quality on limited items, with prices benchmarked against competitors and at least half the range carrying an ‘Eat well’ seal of approval endorsed by the British Nutrition Foundation.
So far, so fairly dull. But M&S has continued to invest in its ‘value you can trust’ proposition and it’s made a significant dent in popular perceptions. Recent trading results suggest a 28% rise in sales of price-locked products, and more spend overall with bigger food baskets (worth more than £30) up 15% over the quarter. (I probably filled one of those baskets—we got a new M&S Food near us recently, sandwiched between the Aldi and the B&M.)
What’s more, shoppers are continuing to say that value will be front of mind for the foreseeable future. In its latest quarterly customer survey, M&S finds the proportion of respondents feeling optimistic about money over the next three months has dropped from 48% to 46% since October. Four in 10 say they will be consciously spending less and saving more in 2024, and value remains the top priority when deciding where to shop, above store location or range of products.
So M&S has to keep responding. And as part of this ‘for the many, not the few’ shift, they’ve been brave enough to encourage their local store staff to post on social media, without seeking central branding approval—all of which has led to a 25% increase in online visibility, particularly on TikTok where shopping influencers post genuinely popular and helpful tips on what’s good right now at the various stores. M&S has endeared itself to that audience by not being too uptight and centralised about it.
Now comes its latest value offer, adding 65 products to the 200 already in the range—so you can buy Remarksable beans, Remarksable instant Fairtrade coffee, Remarksable easy cook long grain rice. All the good stuff. And Status Quo have been brought on board to tell us about it.
The idea was born on the shop floor rather than a Soho studio. Jack Norbury dropped out of sixth form, joined M&S, and rose to become one of their youngest retail sales managers—that’s him at the start of the video. He’s a take-the-initiative type who made a suggestion to CEO Stuart Machin that a savings-focused song would play well on social media.
That led to a song with lyrics as cheerfully clumsy as the Remarksable name: “Oh here we are at M&S and here we go, remarksable value means the prices are low. Here we go, saving all over the store.” And Status Quo themselves were persuaded to perform it at Francis Rossi’s local store in Purley Way, with various TikTok influencers invited to the filming.
This wasn’t Status Quo’s first time rocking the aisles. In 2012, they reworked their hit Down, Down for Australian supermarket Coles (“Down, down, prices are down…”) and the ad ran for several years. How crass, how cringe, you might think. But it’s all utterly Status Quo—a reliably unpretentious band who have never taken themselves seriously and have always been more likeable for it. You could even call them Middle England in a national treasure kind of way—just not the kind of Richard Curtis Middle England that a lot of ad people picture.
Is there still something jarring about M&S opting for Status Quo rather than, say, Morrison’s or Asda? Absolutely, but that’s a good thing if you’re trying to shift perceptions away from posh to unpretentious. And it’s not as much of a surprise to the people who have been following this more closely, or to the people hanging around TikTok and discussing supermarket bargains.
Those people are the primary target audience for this ad. And it’s worth emphasising that it’s not really an ‘ad’ in the sense of appearing during the next Coronation Street ad break. Much of the adland backlash probably rests on the misperception that this is a major new brand campaign from M&S, which would indeed feel weirder. But it’s not—it’s a piece of social media content that will play well to that audience and generate plenty of free press headlines that leave people with the vague impression that M&S isn’t quite as up itself as it used to be.
But maybe adland is.
I’m not arguing that all ‘normal’ everyday folk are bound to like this—opinion will be split as with all things. Nor am I saying we should hail this as some creative breakthrough. Quite rightly, it won’t trouble any creative awards juries (unless Cannes introduces a Best Use of Pub Rock category to go alongside its f-ing Best Use of Humour category). But it’s the collective auto-immune response from ad people that should be questioned.
Like it or not, TikTok is a big thing and TikTok influencers are increasingly part of popular culture. Like it or not, price and value are looming large in people’s minds and that creates a need for more ‘unbelievable value!’ type ads. Like it or not, adland’s perception of Status Quo might not align with that of many people, particularly those of different generations, or those who don’t value coolness and just like having a laugh. Like it or not, young non-graduates can enter the workplace and proactively come up with ideas that bypass graduate-filled ad agencies, and they can be annoyingly successful—maybe because they’re ‘authentic’, to use the word so often used in brand values presentations.
M&S is navigating its way through huge commercial pressures, trying to steer a course somewhere between the Scylla of Waitrose and the Charybdis of Tesco (told you I was a fair way up the snob hierarchy). But I admire the way they’ve responded by playing it looser—being prepared to take themselves less seriously, and having fun on social media while dressing up in their branding best for television. And I admire the way Status Quo don’t take themselves seriously either. And I admire Jack Norbury for being at the heart of it. Francis Rossi says it was “all thanks to a suggestion from a lovely lad called Jack—apparently he’s done several viral videos about how good value M&S Food is, so we thought we’d beat him at his own game.” Good for him.
I’ve rattled this post off because I think it points to something deep in the ad world. There have been the beginnings of a shift of late—people starting to mumble about commercial creativity again, or talking about the importance of reconnecting with ordinary people and making big, populist work. But it’s harder than it sounds. Sometime it might involve feeling the knee-jerk reaction (just as I faintly did) but not necessarily trusting it.
Once again, I’m not saying Saving All Over The Store should be the gold standard. But equally, we shouldn’t be instinctively recoiling from it, or writing sombre pieces about how sad we are to see a brand losing its direction like this. At worst, it’s a sign of snobbish detachment from the real world. But even at best, it’s a sign of a lack of curiosity. Once that wince has flashed across your face, the immediate question should be—what might I be missing here?
It’s all part of the ‘cognitive empathy’ challenge that I wrote about here. And I write about it again towards the end of my forthcoming book The Road to Hell—out by April. I may see if I can get Chris Rea to sing at the launch party.
Thanks for reading. For anyone new here, I’m a writer of poetry, downbeat diaries, branding and advertising projects, articles for Creative Review and The Guardian, and books about design. My new book will be out soon. Full title: The Road to Hell: How purposeful business leads to bad marketing and a worse world (and how human creativity is the way out)