Here in Britain, the festive period brings with it widely celebrated and highly anticipated Christmas television commercials from the nation’s top consumer retail brands. To give more context on our obsession with holiday jingles, upmarket department store, John Lewis’ £7 million ($11.5 million) Christmas advert was “premiered” on prime time TV earlier this November as a major television occasion. The battle amongst retail stores for the crown of the best commercial is a fierce one as it not only brings with it prestige but also tends to improve the sales of the stores behind the nation’s favourite Christmas adverts.
So in the current age of YouTube, what are the UK’s best Christmas ads? Here they are….
1: John Lewis
Unusually for an ad on this year’s list, John Lewis’ barely shows any merchandise and never mentions pricing. Instead, their £7 million ad focuses on narrative, illustrating a friendship between a hare and a bear. When winter begins the bear hibernates, but the hare buys him an alarm clock for Christmas so he doesn’t miss the fun. Leaving aside the sort of mood you’d expect a bear to be in who was unexpectedly woken in midwinter, the combination of long-term nostalgia in the form of old-Disney style animation that deliberately recalls Bambi and more short-term nostalgia in the form of Lilly Allen covering Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know results in an ad that’s confident without being brash.
Both the most genuinely Christmassy and the least sickly of this year’s offerings, this is a clear winner.
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Sainsbury’s ‘Christmas in a Day’ ads kicked off with a trailer for what will become a whole ad series. The hunt for, and struggle to put up, the Christmas tree, leaving food out for Santa, little kids going nuts and dark o’clock on Christmas morning, it’s all here, filmed in a documentary style, ostensibly by the families who appear in it. A tone of wry self-mockery at the ordinary struggles to get through the day without filling the house with atomised turkey smoke, references to parents working away from home and some extremely enthusiastic children make it work for many viewers, judging by the Youtube comments below it. There will be a themed series, with pieces on ‘Homecoming’ and similar themes. Sainsbury’s is hedging its bets somewhat though; in addition to this lo-fi offering it has a series of ‘Sainsbury’s Experts’ videos cunningly placed to offer solutions to the conundrums vexing the families in the first series.
3: Marks & Spencer
Marks and Spencer have used their ad to build a brand-within-a-brand this year – the piece ends with an invitation to find out more at #Magic&Sparkles, seeking a fantasy feel to the high street stalwart. Their ad calls to mind fairy tales too. It begins with a kind of Alice in Wonderland pastiche, with the lead actress falling down a manhole through a range of M&S gift ideas to dinner with the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts. Later in the ad elements of The Wizard of Oz are mixed in, culminating in the three girlfriends plus hunky guy being ruby-slippered to safety. Throughout, M&S display their merch, but more importantly they assume their audience will get the references and respond to the Magic and Sparkles approach to Christmas. M&S aren’t quite trying to be down with the kids here, but they are definitely trying to shed their ‘a nice place to buy socks’ image. Only sales figures will tell if it’s worked…
Boots’ ad is another neatly narrative one. There’s more plot twists and character development in this minute-long sales talk than there will be in most of the shows it interrupts. Our protagonist is young; we know that because when asked, ‘where are you going?’ he replies, ‘out.’ At first glance we’re supposed to think he’s off out for a little festive twocking but actually he’s gift-bombing a whole touching community of everypeople, from the owner of the shop that ‘gave me my first job’ to the nurse who ‘looked after my grand mother. Boots’ optimistic opus implies a Christmas of small miracles on a human scale that many families will find resonant.
The ad opens on a street covered in wrapping-paper variations on the classic Dairy Milk bar’s packaging. Kids run into the street and pull the wrapping paper apart, kicking holes in it, tearing strips off and yelling. Having a job tearing a place up must be the pinnacle for under-10 actors, but with a brand as strong as their Cadbury’s obviously didn’t feel it was necessary to try to sell their merchandise; this was just supposed to pull the brand further into the forefront of the minds of people who will shortly be hitting the aisles looking for stocking fillers.
Soundtracked by Foxes’ Youth, this year’s offering from Debenhams shows a hip young couple meeting in the centre of a European town to ice skate. He’s wearing a trench, rolled jeans and brown shoes; she’s trying on underwear and checking out other women’s outfits on the way to the date. Other characters get some camera time too, but this is really about a Christmas of solid opulence rather than transitory extravagance, of ‘wishes made fabulous,’ and, yes, of Youth.
Morrison’s Christmas ad is introduced and narrated by a gingerbread man in a Morrisons hi-vis tabard who show dances around a table filled with goodies while singing a rewrite of ‘Be Our Guest’ from Beauty and the Beast. Even without Ant and Dec it would be a strong contender for the year’s most surreal advert. After a guided tour of the treats on offer – the reasons, if you will, to shop at Morrisons – the gingerbread man throws up his jazz hands one last time and… is eaten by Dec, while Ant urges him on with the campaign’s strapline: ‘Go on, it’s Christmas!’
Tesco continues the trend towards naked nostalgia and away from narrative as we sink away from the top spot. Soundtracked by Rod Stewart’s legally-not-quite-a-cover-of-Bob-Dylan’s Forever Young, the ad is composed of snatched lengths of camcorder footage showing six decades of Christmasses with the same family. Snowy football in the back garden, teens too cool to dance in case it disturbs their already-disturbing boyband curtains, generational conflict rearing and resolved… Tesco has put all its money on atmosphere here. There’s very little in the way of actual selling of products, just a link to the image of realistically portrayed family Christmasses.
Abandoning the attempts to reach viewers’ hearts with nostalgia, stories and themed imagery, Littlewoods instead goes straight for your pockets. Santa reads a child’s Christmas list as Myleene Klass works the Elf assembly line, and the ad slips in the suggestion that you can ‘spread the cost,’ so ‘everyone can get their Christmas wishes.’ Further down the list we’ll encounter even more unvarnished appeals to the wallet, but Littlewoods adds in family appeal that may well work for the brand.
10: The Co-Operative
Spurning intangibles, the Co-Operative ad uses a backdrop of family events and meals to point out that it has the largest number of local branches of any UK supermarket. An easy-listening acoustic seasonal song matches a voiceover telling you to ‘relax: Christmas is just round the corner.’ After the weight of expectation engendered by some of the year’s ads, this one is a relief, and in amongst the frantic efforts to be seen and heard its moment of calm may stand out on the nation’s screens more than any amount of screaming.
A family sits on a sofa, debating what to get Santa for Christmas. And they’re blue aliens, with kid bodies, big doughy heads and a yard of neck apiece. All of this is window dressing for a series of traditional jokes about Santa having a personal stereo, for instance, before the child of the family settles the matter by proposing a SatNav. Argos are actually advertising their online shopping facility here, as well as boosting brand awareness in the runup to Christmas, but it’s all very workaday.
‘Asda believe things should be simple,’ begins the voiceover. And compared to the naked and blunt appeal to the pocket made here, Myleene Klass’s work for Littlewoods looks nuanced and complex. Asda won’t just price match other supermarkets, they’ll undercut the competition by 10% and if they fail they’ll pay you the difference. This Ronseal approach to advertising – it does what it says on the tin – stands out in a haze of soft ads that seem designed to sell Christmas itself. Asda make no promises that everyone can get their Christmas wish; they just charge less.
Coke has two major ads out this year. One is a fireside chat with Santa in which he says that what he wants for Christmas is for us to be charitable to others, especially strangers; the other appears to have been shot on mobile phones, featuring the sort of camera angles and compositions we’ve learned to be familiar with from YouTube, and shows the extravaganza that is Coca-Cola’s Christmas marketing campaign set to the soundtrack of a festive remix of the Always Coca-Cola song.
14: Royal Mail
The Royal Mail’s ad shows the stalwart postie delivering Christmas to kids up and down the land, to the strains of a choir singing an a capella All You Need Is Love. The minute-long piece is interspersed with shots of people writing cards and putting stamps on envelopes, including a large heart in the Royal Mail’s colours to back up the message.
15: TK Maxx
This is bound to become one of the most mocked adverts this year. The camera shows the expressions on the faces of several people, one after the other, as they open what presumably are giant Faberge eggs filled with rainbows. The implication, that the gift of your dreams can strike you silent with joy, is matched by the implicit suggestion that you can get that gift at TK Maxx. Unfortunately, in most cases the expressions are some intense that they’re actually ambiguous – you know these people feel something strongly, but you don’t know what; the temptation to ad your own voiceover is overpowering. A brave move on TK Maxx’s part, this ad departs from the year’s dominant concepts of nostalgia, narrative, family and price war.
So what do you make of British Christmas commercials? Which was your favourite?