You could say Coca-Cola invented the Christmas ad, but brand storytelling king John Lewis kidnapped it and taught it to manipulate emotions to a twee acoustic soundtrack. Yes, mid-November has been and gone, which means UK residents are being subjected to the annual Christmas overkill—a constant barrage of Slade tunes and flashing street lights and commercials whose sole aim is to make you cry. Like, a lot. Floods of tears, we tell you.
Using storytelling for national holidays is nothing new; companies both large and small have been known to hijack a big event to get some associated feels for themselves. In the US, you need to look no further than the Super Bowl commercial race, or the amount of ’Murica-themed Fourth of July ads that do the rounds every year. Unlike, say, Volvo’s Van Damme splits, in the UK it’s all about turkey and toys.
In the UK, there are countdowns to first-views, big-name directors fighting for the honor, stars lining up to lend their voice—or their face—to a six-week campaign. The Christmas spot is truly the highlight of the advertising calendar and something in-house teams and agencies see as make-or-break.
James McGregor, a managing partner at consultancy Retail Remedy, told the Birmingham Mail that while it is difficult to say whether adverts directly translate to sales, Christmas adverts are in no way a waste of money for retailers: “It really puts a line in the sand in terms of how the retailers approach Christmas, what they represent, and ultimately where they get benefit is the wider social media, the wider social interaction. It is no longer effective to tell consumers that you sell mince pies and cashmere jumpers. [Brands are] trying to better engage with the consumer by telling a story. And it’s largely the person who tells the best story who gets the best coverage.”
A quick word on that coverage: Inch after column inch is devoted to reviewing these ads in newspapers. Social sharing goes through the roof. You’ll get left out of office banter if you don’t have an opinion on the latest character. Heck, even other brands end up either creating a homage or poking fun at you next year. The Great British Christmas Ad is officially a Big Deal.
This year we have Ewan McGregor narrating a tale of romance when a girl loses her shoe for Debenhams; we have singing Amazon boxes traveling around the world; we have Martin Freeman trying (poorly) to pick up a girl on a train platform for Vodafone. We have a sister-led tearjerker from pharmacy Boots and a sister-led nostalgia trip from department store House of Fraser. We have a pair of teddy bears at Heathrow. All of these tell beautiful stories that have at least a thread of relevance to what the advertiser does for a living, and all of them inspire emotional reactions in the viewers.
It’s not always successful, though. This year Currys/PC World took a major misstep with “Merry Techmas”—it tries to sell you a telly, for crying out loud! That’s not what Christmas is about! And while your correspondent actually adored the tongue-in-cheek 2013 KFC one, it’s often named among the worst of all time alongside Asda patronizing mums. We can’t help but feel this year’s McDonald’s effort—focused on carrots of all things—will join that list next time. What on earth does a carrot stick have to do with McDonald’s?
The modern Christmas ad phenomenon arguably started in 2011 with department store John Lewis and “The Long Wait,” the tale of a little boy counting down the days until he could give his parents their Christmas presents. It got such strong reactions on social media—viewed 8 million times on YouTube to date—that they repeated the formula for 2012: tearjerker story (a snowman travels to get his lady a Christmas present to keep her warm), a gentle acoustic cover (it was a massive hit for Gabrielle Alpin), and mass hysteria. From there, a monster was born—quite literally, as six years later we’re now faced with the 2017 version, Moz the Monster, and a slew of accompanying merchandise. The £7m campaign was filmed by Oscar-winning director Michel Gondry and features Elbow’s cover of classic Beatles tune “Golden Slumbers.” This is how big the John Lewis ad has grown. (Just ask poor @JohnLewis of Virginia, who spends about two months each year telling everyone on Twitter he didn’t make the ad.)
So, 2011: Cast your minds back and try to remember what it was like. Obama was POTUS, London was gearing up for the Olympics, Brexit was but a glimmer in a maniac’s eye. A lot of what we now take for granted wasn’t there. Netflix, for one—we actually still watched TV ads. Social media had taken a hold, and people were beginning to share stuff they liked. Little Mix won X Factor on the back of an En Vogue cover—nostalgia marketing was beginning its march into the mainstream. That John Lewis ad came along with the right formula at the right time and tugged at the right heartstrings. It became a hit unlike we’d ever seen.
As the years went on, and more and more retailers wanted a bit of that Lewis share of voice, the Christmas commercial transformed from those “cashmere jumpers and mince pies” of old into the triumphs of brand storytelling that we see today. It can really give an underdog brand a festive spending boost if they get it right. Says Kenyatte Nelson of online retailer Very: “As a pureplay online retailer, we have no high street presence, so resonating emotionally with our audience during the Christmas period is vitally important. This year, Very’s Christmas campaign focuses on the joy of giving. It’s this emotion and unique feeling that we shine a spotlight on through our campaign.”
Yup—it’s all about them feels.
There are other ways for retailers to get attention. The humble Christmas ad has turned into a multichannel behemoth—last year’s John Lewis “Buster the Boxer” tale featured in-store VR games; supermarket Waitrose got Anne Fine, the woman behind the story behind Mrs. Doubtfire, to write a children’s book to accompany this year’s ad, donating 50 pence (66 US cents) for every book sold to the Trussell Trust charity. TK Maxx even has a full interactive digital version of its White Christmas effort, complete with gated form featuring whimsical on-brand warnings: “Sorry, dems the rules. Yes, even Christmas dreams have rules.” (Incidentally, Brit acting legend Bill Nighy narrates that one.)
Perhaps it’s M&S who got the motivation spot on this year; says their marketing director Rob Weston of their star Paddington: “It has been a really hard year and people are looking to escape into a Christmas bubble and put reality on hold. We wanted to create an ad that would stand out from the crowd, have broad appeal across all age groups and be fun. Paddington will do all this.” Plus, y’know, film tie-in and all that.
Saatchi London created a whole Willy Wonka-style “imaginarium” for Asda, part of the Walmart group: “Although the campaign has a fantastical element to it, our stories are firmly rooted in what Asda has to offer shoppers this Christmas, from old favorites to inventive new treats like gin infused chocolates and massive Christmas puddings,” says Sara Rose, group creative director at Saatchi. “Our first thought was ‘How do they come up with these things?’ And the campaign just grew from there.”
But despite the brand storytelling, the emotional motivations, the epic tears, still those outside of this isle just don’t get it. By way of explanation, Seb Joseph writes for Digiday: “The Christmas ad has become a form of entertainment, with people purposefully seeking them out, sharing their favorites with friends and even reviewing some as they would the latest blockbuster. John Lewis realized this quicker than most companies, bringing in psychologists, holding pre-briefings with journalists and partnering with charities to ensure it wins the Christmas advertising arms race.”
Therein lies a clue to why it’s such big news on this side of the pond. The cynical, stiff-upper-lip Brits aren’t meant to get caught up in emotional responses; come Christmas, though, and it becomes a different place. Cheer—nay, love—really is all around. Everyone is happy to leave their troubles at the door and focus on bringing a bit of sunshine to the dreary gray of December. This shit year is almost done; a fresh start is around the corner. It’s a time for family, for friends, for sharing and for caring. Our retailers know to get us with whimsy, with tears, and by reminding us of the ones we hold near and dear. And as much as we look for hidden meaning in Christmas ads, and as much as the far-right got upset that Tesco this year featured girls in hijabs, it really boils down to one thing only: We want an escape. So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun. Look to the future now, it’s only just begun . . .
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Featured image attribution: Bruno Martins