3rd December 2019

Unpopular opinion: Christmas ads are a prime example of bad communications

You would assume that with the months of planning, sky-high budgets, and sheer volume of blood, sweat, and tear-inducing creative that go into Christmas ads that they would be the gold standard for comms—but are they really?

Admittedly not a new phenomenon, bad Christmas creative has been doing the rounds for quite some time, lest we forget Kerry Katona, Coleen Nolan, and Jason Donovan’s musical collaboration for the British supermarket Iceland.

While frozen vol-au-vents and off-key singing are part and parcel of Christmas and can be forgiven, this year’s biggest act of sacrilege is the ad industry’s blatant lack of effort.

ROE — return on emotion

Since the late noughties, the John Lewis ads have become something of an event during the holiday build-up. This predominantly centres on whether the ad will make viewers cry or not, which, considering the cuddly, feel-good content of years past (a particular nod to 2011’s The Long Wait) is a likely occurrence.

2018’s offering, which featured Elton John, sparked something a little less emotional and a little more realistic: a question.

Who is watching these ads and who among them can afford to give their children a piano for Christmas?

Every one of the 14.3 million people on YouTube? Presumably not. And though John Lewis would surely find itself with a serious supply-and-demand problem if 14.3 million people came looking for baby grands, it does highlight a significant point about the ad’s overall objective.

In a piece on BBC.com, Kantar UK’s Chief Growth Officer, Jane Bloomfield, said: “It is important to remind consumers of your brand at this time of year.”  Though that may be true for some retailers, can the same be said for luxury vendors whose clientele are among the elite and exclusive?

Why fight to remind consumers who you are when they will never spend with you?  Brand awareness? Perhaps, but retailers call this the ‘golden quarter’, their time to get out of the red and encourage consumers to buy, buy, buy—so why use a comms strategy that targets an overly broad audience?

Right audience, wrong approach?

What if you are really in the red? Will it take more than a ‘golden quarter’ to get you out?

2019 marks the first year that M&S will be no longer listed on the UK’s biggest stock exchange, the FTSE 100. This development comes after three hard years for the retailer, which have included the closure of a hundred stores.

Their seasonal response? Not one but two overtly lavish ads that, despite their best efforts, haven’t sparked any significant media coverage or social conversation.

Audience-wise, M&S sells a more realistic story, with jumpers taking centre stage in ad one and food hall favourites doing the same in the second offering. A point in the ads’ favour is their attempt to really sell—product is placed and actually named.

M&S demonstrate that they are a little bit more focused in their intent, but as their ads swim among an ocean of others, they fail to make any comms waves. This could be down to a very tired creative formula seen in many ads this year.

Nostalgia marketing

Ever had the feeling that you’ve seen it all before? In 2019, the chances are you probably have. From fashion to film, music to television, nostalgia has become a recurring theme in popular culture products, one that has proved extremely lucrative for the comms and marketing industry.

All year round, the consumer is encouraged to re-engage with loves once past—Doritos and The Backstreet Boys, 7Up and The Original Chiller, Microsoft and the entirety of the ‘90s—with the festive season ramping up the memory game to, well, 90.

Christmas is a time of tradition, so it’s no surprise that consumers are susceptible to creative that reminds them of that toy or that song from years gone by. Brands and agencies are savvy to this fact and, with it in mind, many have successfully demonstrated its power.

Created with UK agency The&Partnership, Argos’s seasonal offering threads the nostalgia line perfectly, pulling at our heartstrings while playing to the beat.

Last year, the Diva became a believer with a short stay courtesy of Hostelworld; now she’s back on a budget again, sharing her love for British crisp brand Walker’s. Star power, camp settings, and obvious humour complement the iconic background to the festivities.

The ads work for very simple reasons: both touch on nostalgia, both have great soundtracks, and both promote a product that is attainable to their audiences. Neither of them, with the exception of Carey’s taste in crisps, ham it up. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for some of their counterparts.

Missing the mark

While there’s no Diva in sight, Tesco still went whole hog with nostalgia in #DeliveringChristmas. Our hero, the humble delivery man, makes his way through not one but seven periods in time to ensure all generations are included in this trip down memory line.

While there may be an approachable element to it, the supermarket’s moderate piracy of the Back to the Future franchise has to be highlighted (and should be discouraged).

Though ultimately a blast from the past, Sainsbury’s offering is less about nostalgia and more about the thievery (both in narrative and in nature it would seem).

With the addition of Santa Claus and a slightly cheerier demeanour to the characters, Sainsbury’s Christmas ad is all too similar to Oliver Twist. And while we appreciate that this is a festive film that helps to deliver the holiday spirit, we don’t appreciate a discount Dickens.

And what’s it all about?

When it comes to Christmas ads, there’s a slight air of mystery in the comms department. Brands that lead the way in innovative customer communications throughout the year seem to lose their way. Many opt for a blanket Christmas comms strategy that favours the warm and fuzzy above all else, including the customer.

Then again, during a time where every man and his dog are out selling, what should the focus be? Awareness? Sales? Association? A colleague suggested that it might be goodwill.

This is a nice sentiment, but with a weekend of Black Friday madness behind us and the anticipation of Stephen’s Day sales ahead, whether it is clear in their execution or not, it is hard to think that they are concerned about anything other than cold hard cash.

About the author

Sinéad is a Digital Strategist at PR360. Her keen interest in understanding audiences and their emotional triggers allows her to craft meaningful campaigns steeped in insight. Happiest when armed with post-its and Sharpies.

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