It is a battle for the hearts and minds of middle England. In one corner stands perhaps the nation's best-known retailer, in the other, legions of the most vocal – and sharp-elbowed – mothers in the country. Thousands of bloggers on the influential website Mumsnet are up in arms over Marks & Spencer's decision to sublet a former "Simply Food" outlet to the US restaurant chain Hooters, best known for its scantily clad waitresses and wet T-shirt competitions.
Members of the forum are calling on the site's one million monthly visitors to boycott the retailer for "selling women and girls down the river ... to make a quick buck", and have started a letter writing campaign urging M&S to reconsider.
In the face of much public opposition, Bristol city council this month gave the Hooters restaurant permission to open on the city's harbour-side. While the chain claims to be "family-friendly", the orange hot-pants and tiny white vest tops worn by its female staff are advertised more heavily than the burgers and nachos it sells.
"There has been a very strong response on the site to this. We've had thousands of comments and lots of people have written to M&S complaining about it," said Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet. "It is a family- and women-friendly brand. People think of it as more than a business, and expect more."
Mumsnetters are also offended by Hooters merchandise, which includes children's clothing bearing slogans such as "Does My Butt Look Big in This?" The say these messages undermine M&S's commitment to the site's 2010 "Let Girls be Girls" campaign, which aims to prevent the premature sexualisation of children.
While M&S is one of Britain's longest-standing and best-loved retailers, in incurring the wrath of Mumsnet it is taking on a formidable enemy. The decade-old website has a history of successful campaigns. In April Primark withdrew padded bikinis for girls as young as seven after pressure from the site. Even the recent general election was dubbed "the Mumsnet Election", after politicians from all parties courted the site's members.
The Hooters chain, which has 455 outlets across the world, plans to open restaurants in Cardiff and Brighton. The Cardiff Feminist Network has started a "Say No to Hooters" campaign, claiming that the restaurants are sexist and demeaning to women, arguments echoed on Mumsnet.
"It looks as if they [M&S] are endorsing – or at least not objecting to – the objectification of women. How girls are portrayed is very important to Mumsnetters," Ms Roberts said.
And what is important to Mumsnetters is important to retailers and advertisers. The site is frequented in the main by affluent mothers with considerable spending power and a high degree of self-regard. In the main they are aged between 30 and 45 and live in London and the South-east.Reuse content