Brands tread line between reality and escapism in Christmas ad dilemma

First wave of ads reveals fruits of brands' uncertain bets after tumultuous year.

The jolly dad in Asda’s Christmas ad, fumbling with tangles of lights, gives a knowing look to the camera and says: “I guess Christmas is going to be different this year.”

Now it is hard not to watch that scene without hearing an echo from Boris Johnson’s sombre press conference on 31 October, when he delivered the same message about Christmas before revealing England’s second lockdown. For some advertisers, the timing couldn’t have been worse: the announcement of another lockdown came in the same weekend that kicked off the busy Christmas ad season.

This is the period that some brands and agencies gear up for all year – the UK ad industry’s “Super Bowl moment”, as the oft-repeated comparison goes. Yet few could have predicted the exact rocky circumstances in which they’d be launching their campaigns. This year’s crisis has meant that for advertisers preparing for Christmas, “people had to make bets in the dark and just hope for the best”, Hermeti Balarin, a partner at Mother London, says.

The first batch of 2020 Christmas ads shows the fruits of those uncertain bets and points to what else the industry might expect as it sees out this crucial season in the most unpredictable of years.

An early indicator that Christmas advertising would be different this year was Marks & Spencer’s decision to axe its festive TV campaign for its clothing and home range. The move may come as little surprise since the retailer was struggling even before Covid-19, which has further damaged its business, but it was a reminder of the stark reality facing the ad market as this crisis drags on.

The latest Advertising Association/Warc Expenditure Report forecast that UK adspend would see a worse-than-expected decline in the run-up to Christmas, with revenues expected to fall 10.5% year on year to £6.2bn in the three months to December.

Besides M&S, most of the other usual Christmas advertisers are going ahead this year. An exception is Ikea, which ran its first festive spot last year, but Campaign understands that the retailer never planned to do a Christmas ad in 2020 and this decision was not linked to the pandemic.

Playing into reality

Christmas campaigns typically have long lead times, but after the first lockdown started, marketers “were literally just trying to see ahead by a few weeks”, Balarin says. They would have faced issues such as reduced budgets, production constraints and striking the right tone amid so much uncertainty. They may have questioned running advertising full stop – Grey London chief strategy officer Raquel Chicourel says the agency wondered before making the Very ad: “Should we even have a Christmas campaign?”

Of those who answered “yes” to that conundrum, a few themes are already emerging. “Some [brands] are playing straight into reality” and finding ways to subtly acknowledge the challenges of this year, Balarin points out.

Asda follows a dad bumbling through festive preparations despite different circumstances, Facebook shows a family staying connected through its video-calling device Portal and Argos’ ad is about “making the most of what you’ve got” even in “the humble settings of a small family gathering”, Balarin observes.

Very, one of the first brands to launch a Christmas campaign, encourages people to embrace small moments rather than just the big day, with a film “dissing the traditional, perfect Christmas and vouching for imperfection”, he adds.

Bringing joy

Even for those Christmas advertisers that have given a nod to our difficult realities, “it’s all about joy”, according to Aidan McClure, chief creative officer and founding partner of Wonderhood Studios. This is a persistent theme in every festive season – “the best Christmas ads always make you feel that joy,” he says – but it is also a notable step away from a common trend among marketers to stir up emotion and try to make people cry at Christmastime.

This trend probably reached its peak when German supermarket Edeka released a holiday spot in 2015 about an old man who goes to drastic lengths to bring his family together: by faking his own death. “You can’t go further than someone faking their own death to invoke emotion out of an audience,” McClure says.

If there were any year for advertisers to dial back their emotional manipulation, it is this one. “Maybe tears aren’t the only emotion you should be feeling this year,” Simon Lloyd, UK chief creative officer at Dentsumcgarrybowen, suggests.

According to Lloyd and Balarin, a brand that has struck the right tone this year is TK Maxx, whose ad stars a tiny goat strutting through a field while wearing a designer outfit and a red beret. A farmer, watching his well-dressed animal from the window, remarks with unexpected emotion: “She’s had such a hard year. She bloomin’ well deserves it.”

Instead of a goat, he could just as easily have been referring to any person living through 2020. “It’s hard not to feel emotional about that, because it’s really true,” Lloyd says. “[TK Maxx] smashed the absurd together with the emotional truth of Covid. It’s nodding to the bleakness of this year, but in an ironic and playful way.”

Plus, a stylish goat is just a funny idea and “brands that do comedy this year will stand out because it’s what people need – they need a bit of light relief”, Lloyd adds.

Striking the right tone

One big advertiser that chose to ditch the laughs is Amazon, whose film follows a resilient ballerina whose dreams go off course because of the pandemic. While the creatives interviewed by Campaign agree that Amazon’s production is an emotional and beautifully crafted story, some question whether its endline – “The show must go on” – might hit a nerve coming from a large corporation whose business has been unscathed by this year’s trials.

“There are some questionable things about it that leave me feeling a bit like I’m manipulated,” McClure says. “Of course, Amazon can claim the show must go on, because they’re effectively running the show. They are the show.”

This reaction to the Amazon film highlights the crucial dilemma for all Christmas advertisers: how do you capture people’s attention and sell products without appearing tone-deaf? “Whatever you do, you just have to be tuned in to the zeitgeist,” McClure warns.

In some cases, this challenge was not too daunting to discourage several brands that have previously avoided Christmas advertising from wading into the game this year. For example, Facebook Portal and Mars cat-treats brand Dreamies have both released festive campaigns in recent days.

Simon Gregory, joint chief strategy officer at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, predicts “more Christmas-ified messages” emerging in ads this year and expects additional campaigns to come out “beyond the big players”.

The emergence of unexpected Christmas advertisers could partly be down to the fact that some marketers may “have held back budgets [until now] because they were unsure what to do”, Gregory says, adding: “Or it could also be brands going: let’s just add some warmth because it’s been a cold year. This is a chance for brands to bring some entertainment. If you can just bring a smile to people, that’s an easy win.”

But the big one has yet to come…

Of course, the one Christmas campaign that is most anticipated each year, even by members of the public, has yet to launch: John Lewis & Partners. Like in 2019, the brand is set to run another joint campaign with Waitrose & Partners, but Campaign understands that it will take a different creative approach from its previous long-form narrative ads for the festive season.

The retailer has publicly said that this year’s campaign will incorporate a major charity appeal that aims to raise £5m for two organisations: FareShare, which helps those facing food poverty, and Home-Start, which works with parents who need support.

Lloyd, who was previously group creative director at John Lewis’ long-time agency Adam & Eve/DDB and created last year’s “Excitable Edgar”, said the brand has “always fallen back into the muscle memory of the same model” for Christmas, but this unprecedented year was an ideal time to try something different. “The intention they’ve announced is a really smart thing to do, because it already puts you on the front foot and creates positivity,” he says.

However, some of the change in its advertising might also have come from necessity; like numerous other retailers, John Lewis’ business is struggling. This week, it said it will axe up to 1,500 jobs at its head office as it makes further cost cuts. A different team of clients also presided over this latest Christmas campaign, after the company restructured its marketing department at the start of 2020.

Those challenges aside, many people will still be wishing for the kind of Christmas cheer that John Lewis delivers through its advertising year after year.

“I think people will welcome the entertainment. [Christmas ads] have become such a tradition,” Balarin says. “When everything else has been stripped away, stripping this too would be quite depressing.”

Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Balarin says the advertisers that stand out will be those that bring a bit more escapism – something that will be sorely needed when so much else about Christmas has changed. “I’m hoping for more goats,” he concludes.

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