Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman posed a very good question last week.
When exactly did Christmas ads become such a big deal in the UK?
She was referring specifically to the much-awaited and over-hyped commercial for retailer John Lewis from adam&eveddb (“so soppy eyed it makes the Werther’s Originals advert look like a gritty Ken Loach film”), but other high street names have been keen to get a slice of the action. Take M&S, for instance. Last year, they enlisted the support of all the X-Factor finalists to wish upon a star and, in 2012, have created a slightly jarring amalgam of different musical ‘hits’ to illustrate their broad range of products and target markets.
Conferring with my French students from Sup de Pub, we’re agreed that there’s no real equivalent to this phenomenon on the other side of the English Channel. In Paris, people don’t sit around waiting for ads featuring peripatetic, lovestruck snowmen. Freeman likened the hype to the American Super Bowl commercials, which – to a large extent – have become as an important a part of the sporting extravaganza as the game itself. Perhaps November is the new December? Once the John Lewis ad has arrived, Christmas is done.
From a marketing perspective, I really admire what the department store has done. They’ve created an ad which is more than an ad. It’s a cultural artefact which generates free PR. From a creative perspective, I am slightly frustrated by the way festive advertising has to run to an inevitable formula, which might be described as clichéd, saccharine, romantic and relentlessly optimistic.
Remember last year’s John Lewis ad, in which a young boy waits eagerly for December 25th, just so that he can hand his delighted parents a present? You won’t be surprised to learn that it led to parodies, such as this enchanting Yuletide vision from cabaret stars Bourgeois & Maurice. In 2012, a year wiser, the generous young lad probably didn’t bother waiting. He gave his parents the present as soon as the John Lewis snowman commercial went on air.
In an attempt to find an antidote to Christmas ads past, present and future, I’ve been on a hunt for those that treat the subject in a slightly different way. Saatchi & Saatchi’s recent commercial for Asda has run into some controversy for depicting mothers as the only people involved in organising the festive celebrations. Personally, I feel the ad is likely to be well researched and is designed to resonate with the target audience of busy, put-upon mums who feel they’re expected to do everything, while their husbands simply train their mince pies on the telly. It’s a welcome slice of realism served up with the annual plum pudding.
Asda’s rival Morrisons is not to be outdone. They take the same basic premise – that mum has far too many challenges to cope with – but give it a surreal twist. The female star of their commercial is seen grappling with a turkey in a wrestling ring and writing Christmas cards to people she met on holiday in Corfu back in the 1990s. So far, this ad has my vote as the most refreshing take on the seasonal celebrations that I’ve seen. It still ends, however, with a good ladle full of schmaltz over the family dinner. Mum may be frustrated and bewildered by what Christmas throws at her, but she ‘wouldn’t have it any other way’.
In the digital age, some people argue that the old story-telling model of advertising is falling apart. Rather than buying neatly packaged fables about brands, we instead look for tangible experiences that add real value to our lives.
Last month, George Prest – Executive Creative Director of R/GA London, wrote in The Guardian that we are ‘living in a world where non-fiction is as important as fiction’. He argued that the way brands behave is more important than what they say and the ‘metaphors they weave’. It’s a very interesting perspective, but one which is severely challenged by Christmas. In a sense, the whole season is built around myths. Not just the obvious ones such as Santa Claus, but the others we cherish about family, community and the altruistic spirit of humanity. This may be fiction that consumers are reluctant for advertisers to abandon.