Subverting the schmaltz: Why advertising should inject more ho-ho into the holiday season

Adland should go further in creating funny Christmas ads rather than shadowing society's mood, writes Radiocentre's head of creative development.

It’s been much observed that Christmas has become an annual industry blub-fest. With the excellent John Lewis oeuvre leading the charge, festive advertisers now compile a commercial Christmas show reel that would soften the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.

I like a commercial tear-jerker as much as the next customer and UK retailers have a great track record of creating heart-warming, eminently watchable branded winter stories. But the advertising industry has a prerogative to disrupt and to challenge, and the seasonal default to schmaltz can sometimes smack of a lack of imagination. A ‘warm glow’ will do no favours for your brand if it feels contrived.

Many of the stand-out advertisers of the past few Christmases have been those to buck the trend. Harvey Nichols built on the brand’s anarchic advertising heritage, established through executions such as "Sorry I spent it on myself’ and "Walk of shame" both by Adam & Eve/DDB. Mulberry is another brand with a track record of subversive, amusing and consequently memorable festive advertising.

But proper holiday lolz in adland are few and far between – and this year more than ever. Why?

Radiocentre, along with the IPA of course, have plenty of evidence that advertising that provokes an emotional response is more likely to have a positive impact on brand consideration. Laughter can sugar the pill for a commercial message in people’s minds.

Nevertheless it’s rare to see or hear a genuinely witty ad at any time of year these days on TV or radio and certainly online. Those that do attempt humour tend to stick to received tropes of comedy, or rely on the wit of celebrities such as Jeremy Clarkson or James Corden, borrowing humour for the brand.

That said, it was refreshing to see John Lewis "Buster the Boxer" by Adam & Eve/DDB played for gentle laughs. But the lolz were tasteful and unobtrusive. And there is no-one occupying slapstick Tango territory or pulling Paddy Power-style punches this season.

The world of advertising is, to an extent, a mirror to society. Perhaps this is why over the past ten years the emotional barometer in adland has turned so sombre. The tumult of 2016 has done nothing to lessen this and we see an increasingly sober and competitive commercial world reflected in the timbre of our advertising.

But in this lies the opportunity. Rather than simply shadowing society’s mood, the adland mirror is two way, and media also plays a critical role in shaping the world it serves.

Perhaps in 2017, a welcome injection of collective mirth from us all might be just what’s required. For standout, for disruption and frankly for welcome relief.

And we think there’s no better vehicle for great writing, witty wordplay and comic performance than UK radio, with its strong Christmas comedy heritage, be that in classic BBC sitcom specials or branded Christmas takeovers on commercial stations, it would appear to be an untapped channel for advertisers.

The gauntlet – or rather the winter mitten - has been thrown.

Clare Bowen is head of creative development at Radiocentre

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