Peter York On Ads: No men and Fair Trade - the shop of the moment

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Moral tone is a wonderful thing, a mid-19th century marvel like civic pride. The idea of moral muscles at their peak, utterly buff with all the answers to life's everyday questions, appeals hugely. It's changed a bit since 1880 though. I've just spent the weekend with some people who reviewed the travel expenses of every mouthful on their plates. Those green beans, for instance, had probably been airlifted from Kenya. Atmospheric damage. Their coffee at home was Fair Trade. And, of course, they were vegetarian. They'd thought it through, the inputs, the outputs, the impacts. They went to moral-tone websites which taught them which manufacturers and shops paid their workers best, or had good health and safety records.

Didn't it make life more complicated, I asked? No, they said it made it simpler, certainly simpler than mugging up on Glycaemic Indices and other self-centred nonsense.

But don't you end up with completely dumb pony products if all you worry about is moral tone? But, glorious in their righteousness, they said everything they had was beautiful, so there.

The Body Shop had moral tone - it was central to its brand, whose original appeal was to concerned middle-class teenage girls. Many of the products were made out of recognisable ingredients. Things with that avocado look and texture, things that connect you with the soil of Muswell Hill, with all its throbbing undercurrents, ley lines and seasonal rhythms. What lies beneath?

But L'Oreal's aesthetic is different, somewhere between the James Bond clinic in the Alps (it's part-owned by Nestlé) and the piss-elegant glam' of Seventh Avenue. L'Oreal's second brand, Laboratories Garnier, is all about Euro-science creating Euro- elegance. It needs the Body Shop to cover all the market segments, and the moral-tone market is a surprisingly big one now.

But 21st-century moral tone is a private affair compared with the 19th-century kind. The private satisfaction of avoidance, changing what you buy, rather than full-on fulmination. Or anything collective.

There's something profoundly collective about the way the John Lewis Partnership is owned and run. Its staff (the partners) feel different about the world because they feel they own the shop, so they handle customers differently (as in "I think the cheaper one's better value"). The JLP moral tone comes from something structural and collective. Its continuing success, however, comes from running shops very well. JLP doesn't bang on about moral tone.

And nor does the Co-op. Its roots and its current reality are very different from the John Lewis Partnership's. JLP is southern, ragingly middle-class, it's practically defines echt middle classness - leaning to upper-middle (Peter Jones) and north London Foodie (Waitrose). The Co-op ethos is working class, Northern and self-help. But there's clearly a moral tone message there it could use - and it barely does. No one's accused the Co-op of running good innovative shops for years. Nor of interesting advertising ("your caring, sharing co-op").

You long for an interesting rallying call, but clearly the research is saying its customer base doesn't respond, that the sort of class awareness that linked, say, the old Daily Mirror ("Forward with the People") and Old Labour with the Co-operative Movement evaporated in the Wilson Sixties. So it talks price - where it's vulnerable to all the operators with more buying clout - and family, with a weak echo of collective ownership.

But the new Co-op Mother's Day commercial has some odd moments. Mother's Day, for instance, is completely a girl thing in this commercial. It celebrates a household where men have been ... dismissed, or possibly buried under the patio? And that's got moral tone, because we all know men are solely responsible for Air Miles and everything else that's bad.

A little girl takes her mother breakfast in bed. The mother gives her sister a box of Cadbury's Roses. The sister gives Gran Belgian Fair Trade chocolates (difficult to imagine Belgian Fair Trade anything but maybe they've repented). Then the women stand around drinking cut-price Fair Trade wines. "It's our Co-op and it's our day," they say in a wonderfully bleached-out 1970s looking group shot. Is the Co-op finding it's moral-tone plot again?