Why this Christmas is a time for advertisers to rein it in

Christmas is usually a time for indulgence, but this year's festive ads show brands reining in their approach, says McCann London's creative chief.

Christmas is a time for indulgence. Nowhere more so than in advertising, where brands become bigger, bolder, brighter, funnier, more heart-string pull-ier than at any other time of the year. It is life on steroids. There is big-hearted happiness and joy for the lucky ones surrounded by family and friends – silly hats and silly laughter. But it is also a heartbreakingly sad period for those having a tough time during the festive season.   

In short, the highs are higher, and the lows are lower. And this has traditionally been reflected across Britain’s Christmas ads. Brands know that they have a willing audience and are well aware that they have license to let their hair down. Like the quiet guy from accounts at the office Christmas party twerking and throwing up in a plant pot, brands often get a bit giddy and come out of themselves. And by doing so, many of them are able to punch above their weight at this time of year.

It makes Christmas briefs great opportunities for agencies. But they are also bloody hard ones to crack – particularly this year. Because, unlike Christmases past, the task of landing just the right emotional pitch is a very tricky one. After all, it’s been a pretty challenging 18 months or so for a lot of us. We’ve had Brexit, Trump, an increase in hate crime, emerging fears about the destruction of the NHS, the police, an unstable government, and I’m still not over Bruce Forsyth’s passing. 

So, way back at the beginning of the year when people started working on Xmas ’17 briefs, there would have been much wrangling about just how to pitch the festive offering. Just what do the people of Britain need right now in these uncertain times in which we inhabit? Make it political? A tear-jerker or a belly laugh? Or attach a moral to the tale? 

We’ve seen some truly excellent work over the years – the Sainsbury’s 2014 ad which recreated the First World War Christmas Day football match truce, and many of John Lewis’ recent Christmas campaigns. But in light of this year’s challenges, it’s no wonder that brands have reined themselves in a little and avoided the tear-jerker route.  

John Lewis went for a sweet, lightly fantastical film focusing on a kid with a dual heritage family.  Waitrose gave us a wry smile in a snowbound North Yorkshire pub while gently poking fun at our own snobbishness.  

Asda went all glamourous in a spot that blended poor man’s Wes Anderson with Wonka magic inspired by one of the best-known British heroes: Roald Dahl. Aldi had a romp with affable Kevin the Carrot, who found love in the shape of Katie the Carrot and even cracked a "pea" joke.  

M&S told a jolly story with a timeless, loveable (Peruvian immigrant) hero. Sainsbury’s sung us a song in joyful celebration of all that is a proper British Christmas, with a little help from Ricky Tomlinson as Jim Royle… and Kermit!   

The subtext of all this is "Everything’s alright, really, because we’re British". Keeping it upbeat, celebrating ourselves as a nation made up of people who are more similar than different. Standing united in our view of what makes Christmas, Christmas. By being positive, inclusive, British.  As Tiny Tim once said: "God bless us, everyone!"

Fair enough, because, thinking about it now, I’m not sure how the Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas commercial I admire would have made me feel if it had run this year. It just goes to show, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and when you say it. Yes, just as the quiet guy from accounts wouldn’t twerk and throw up in a plant plot on a normal work day, timing and context are all.  

Laurence Thomson is president and chief creative officer of McCann London

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