Fashion chain's TV fight takes a battering

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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has received more than 100 complaints since the commercial first aired last week from viewers offended by its violence and sexual imagery.

The ASA has confirmed that it would investigate whether the commercial breached its post-9pm watershed restriction.

It was dreamt up by Trevor Beattie, the ad man infamous for lifting the FCUK acronym from an internal memo and turning it into one of the industry's most controversial campaigns.

The watchdog, which has a stormy relationship with the fashion retailer, has twice "sin-binned" it for past campaigns. An ASA spokesman said: "Some people are upset by the violence and others by the sexual content and that lesbian kiss." However, the watchdog said that the commercial's "highly stylised" fight scene was unlikely to lead to or condone harm and did not provide grounds for a formal investigation - but this is unlikely to stem the criticism.

The two women fighting are supposed to evoke a quote from Yves Saint Laurent, the French designer, who once said: "Fashion fades, style is eternal." The battle pits fashion against style; the reconciliatory kiss suggests that ultimately neither wins.

French Connection said it wanted to spark a debate about whether women deem fashion or style more important. The retailer is desperate to rehabilitate its image, which took a battering during the dying days of its FCUK campaign. Its profits and sales have collapsed, wiping hundreds of millions of pounds off the value of the company and the personal fortune of its founding chairman, Stephen Marks.

Critics have lambasted the ad for degrading women. Linda Bellos, the feminist activist, said: "Frankly they should grow up and get real. This is just every bloody man's fantasy with knobs on." Shelia Jones, of the National Council of Women, said: "Women are subjected to enough horrendous violence without needing to do it to themselves. These sorts of images undermine the issue of equality we have worked for 100 years to achieve."

The retailer dismissed all criticism, apparently revelling in the controversy. "Our brand is irreverent," said a spokeswoman. "We want to stand out from the crowd. We think the ad celebrates the female because she is both sides of the story."

Ms Bellos said: "I don't know if the solution is just to ignore it. The difficulty is that the more you say it's disgusting, the more people will want to watch it."

The advert will air just six times on TV in high-profile slots such as during the Brit Awards.

In the US, French Connection's products were once banned from leading department stores after its "Scent to Bed" slogan for a new fragrance enraged the Christian lobby group, American Family Association.

Earlier this year, the ASA pounced again for the company's spring 2004 campaign, launching French Connection's commercial radio station, FCUK FM. The regulator said posters to promote the station using phrases including "FCUK FM FROM PNUK TO RCOK AND BACK. NON-STOP FNUK FCUK FM" would cause offence.