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M&S ad controversy highlights social responsibility of brands

Amid the ongoing crisis in Gaza, marketing blunders like these demonstrate the urgency of brand due diligence. 

Each year, the arrival of Christmas creeps slightly earlier. Nowadays, we’re still busy binning Halloween decorations and transforming pumpkins into a buffet of soups and risottos when Mariah Carey starts defrosting.

And it hardly raises an eyebrow if major brands launch their festive campaigns on the 1st November.

We might still be waiting for the John Lewis Christmas ad, which has become something of an annual event in the UK, but big-name retailers are still jumping on the early festive marketing opportunities.

That includes M&S, who launched its star-studded, high-budget Christmas ad to generally mixed-reviews.

The campaign strapline ‘Love Thismas not Thatmas’ underpins the message of choosing only what you love over the festive period, including scrapping certain traditions if they don’t suit you.

While the message was embraced by some, others felt the images of celebrities throwing away board games and toys promoted waste, at a time when many are struggling to afford Christmas amid an ongoing cost of living crisis.

But in the days since the campaign launched, it’s not the key messaging that’s caused the most outrage.

In a since-deleted Instagram post, M&S shared an outtake from the ad that showed Christmas hats burning in a fireplace. ‘This Christmas, do what you love…like saying no to paper hats’ wrote the caption.

While the sentiment was in keeping with the campaigns ‘This or That’ theme, the hats featured were the colours of the Palestinian flag.

Comments were quick to point out the correlation, with some users suggesting it was intentional.

The retailer has since apologised in a statement to social media, where they claimed any hurt caused was ‘unintentional’ and the intent was merely ‘playful’.

The long-standing conflict between Palestine and Israel was re-ignited in early October after Hamas militants stormed southern Israel, killing civilians and kidnapping hostages.

Since then, Israel has launched a full-scale attack on Gaza, a densely populated Palestinian city. More than 8,800 Palestinians have been killed, and 22,000 injured.

While sentiment in the Western media has been significantly pro-Israel, millions of people in across Europe and the US are calling for a ceasefire by Israel, as those in Gaza are continually bombed and cut-off from fuel, water, and electricity.

While it’s (hopefully) unlikely that M&S’s campaign blunder was an intentional anti-Palestinian statement, their lack of due-diligence during a time of international humanitarian crisis is pretty astonishing. Especially given the time, money, and resources that would have gone into creating a campaign of this size.

In an age of social media, where almost anything can be picked apart, chewed up and spat out by discerning audiences and critics, it’s imperative that marketing teams go over everything with a fine tooth comb.

Brands have huge social influence, especially high-street mainstays like M&S.

If you’re fortunate enough to make billions in revenue a year, then you’re pushing the needle when it comes to what people like, and what people talk about. Whether you like it or not, that includes what people think.

This influence comes with astronomical responsibility. And mistakes like this one by M&S prove that a lot of brands are either unequipped to handle their own success, or are ignorant to the socio-political authority they hold.

As LinkedIn user Lorna Karechu wrote, now is when the details matter most.

‘Those who work to get a campaign out now how crazy the process can get and how easy it is for something to be missed BUT now is when the details REALLY matter.’

‘Brands cannot claim ignorance anymore – we all know what’s going on in the world right now, so it’s especially important that any consumer facing comms are HIGHLY inspected before they go out to the wider public.’

It’s no longer enough for brands to focus solely on the commercial aspects of their campaigns; they must also consider the potential social and political implications.

M&S’s Christmas controversy serves as a cautionary tale for brands navigating the intricate landscape of modern marketing. The incident underscores the importance of due diligence, urging brands to be acutely aware of the world in which they operate and the potential impact of their messaging.

As consumers increasingly demand ethical and socially responsible practices, brands must recognize their role in shaping public opinion and contributing to larger socio-political discussions—whether they intended to or not.