What do this year's Christmas ads say about the national mood?

You don't exactly need Sigmund Freud to get to the bottom of it.

Christmas: Sainsbury's went full Dickensian
Christmas: Sainsbury's went full Dickensian

As we approach a new decade, the headline writers of the nation must be stumped. Both of their most obvious devices are out of bounds. It’s difficult to talk about the "roaring 20s", when we’re presumably heading into a period either of widescale nationalisations or Brexit-based economic calamity (although there’s always the possibility of a Lib Dem majority – ho ho ho). 

And they also can’t really use "2020 vision", because no-one can see past the end of their nose at the moment, given the situation outlined above. There are still at least two very different versions of Brexit – that mad riddle – that could come to pass, if it happens at all. And, after recent TV events, it’s probably fair to say we can’t even be certain the UK will still be a monarchy in 10 years' time. Never before has the term VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) – first adopted in the US military, before becoming trendy in business circles – felt so apt.

Ad campaigns are not TV news and it’s unlikely that the UK’s great retailers are trying to get into exactly the part of the brain that worries about Corbyn, Johnson, blue passports or the ongoing jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. But because brands are tuned in to the emotional state of the nation, it’s perhaps no surprise that so many have chosen to evoke simpler times, when people had nothing significant to worry about, like the 1940s, 1860s and 1500s. 

So once the dreaded 12 December is out of the way, let’s take a leaf from these brands, park the politics for a while and pick up the Port instead. As Tiny Tim would say nowadays: God bless us, everyone (apart from that awful remoaner Ebenezer and his business pals, up in their ivory towers).

Dan Cullen-Shute

Chief executive, Creature

If anything ties this year’s Yuletide crop together, it’s that whiff of "EVERYTHING’S GOING TO BE FINE", because in the real world everything’s on fire (sorry, Edgar), and if Christmas is normally about escapism, this year we need reassurance. 

They’re all about Brexit and our Yuletide general election, aren’t they? Just like every other thing. Sainsbury’s is Corbyn’s red-clad Labour, redistributing wealth left, right and centre. Tesco is the Lib Dems, crashing through history, achieving relatively little and ultimately ending up right where it started. And John Lewis has created the Tory parable for our times, where Bumbling Brexit the Dragon sets fire to the NHS, the police force and various other public services, before ultimately being accepted when he makes a small group of villagers significantly better off. All I wanted this Christmas was joy and escapism, and all I’ve got is more sodding politics.

Andy Nairn

Founding partner, Lucky Generals

This year’s big Christmas theme appears to be nostalgia. We’ve got Tesco celebrating its 100th anniversary with a time-travelling van driver; Barbour marking its 125th with a transtemporal Santa; Sainsbury’s doing its 150th with a Victorian sweep; and, of course, John Lewis and Waitrose clocking up their joint 1,000th with a medieval dragon. Of course, you could argue that this is just a perennial festive theme that has been exacerbated by a few big birthdays. But it’s equally easy to discern a national reluctance to look forward, given all the uncertainty ahead. No doubt we will still live up to Noddy Holder’s prophecy that "Everybody’s having fun", but we don’t seem so keen on the bit about "Look to the future now, it’s only just begun".

Karen Martin

Managing director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

The mood of the nation is unfortunately a cold one and we need a big, joyous Christmas to warm us all up. The optimists in our industry have come together to remind us of what Christmas is truly about. Christmas is a time when people want to put aside the daily grind and negativity and embrace the fun, festivity and excitement of a time of year focused on generosity, family and bringing people together. People want to indulge in the fantasy and escapism of a good dose of entertainment, so it's no surprise that Christmas TV ads are full of both. This year, we really fostered memories as a way into Christmas, with stories of fantasy, Christmases gone past and, more importantly, the excellent game shows from your youth. No Christmas is complete without Bullseye, is it?

Josh Bullmore

Chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett London

This year’s ads say we’re frazzled, fraught, harassed, troubled and strained.

Who can blame us? Unrelenting division, disillusionment and distrust have been steadily cranking up the national stress level all year. Our poor ape-like brains only have two responses to stress - fight or flight.

Earlier in the year, we had a little more heart for the fight, as we saw from crowds on the streets rebelling against extinction or our political class.

But Christmas is a time for flight. And with whimsical tales of dragons, twisted Victoriana, surreal flights of fancy and some irresistibly festive animation, advertisers have cannily and kindly supplied escapism by the stocking-load. 

Carole Davids

Creative director, The Elephant Room

Christmas ads don’t need to reflect the national mood as it is. Heck, no. It’s the one time when we have a licence to project what mood we really want to feel. Christmas ads need to be full of joyful moments, not to reflect how we are all feeling about Brexit, the economy, our relationships with social media, whether or not to use a straw, should I be flexible working or not, and our unmapped future. That would plunge us all into terrible despair, weeping into our recycled wrapping paper on our upcycled sofas. 

That said, there isn't one ad that captures this desire completely, but there are some wonderful little human moments in some of these ads that do – the "thumbs up" from Edgar just before all hell breaks loose, the shared moment of joy from Argos' dad and daughter jamming together, the placing of the satsumas into stockings in the Sainsbury's ad. At the heart of this are intimate, trusting moments in our human relationships that we could be guilty of missing throughout the year. Rather than reflect on that disappointment, these ads show that there's humanity about us all, we're all trying to do our best and that's most vivid at Christmas… but wouldn't that be a nice mood to feel all year round too. 

Chris Lewis

Consultant, Talk Up Marketing Consultancy

Oh, the magic of Christmas. Heritage, nostalgia, humour, big ads from big brands flexing their advertising muscle. The general public mood to me is a heady mix of an election, Brexit (or not) and a looming Christmas, plus a new series of I'm a Celebrity… to boot. Perhaps the ads are designed to ease us gently into the festive period, to put a smile on our faces in the hope we spend carefree (at least in their stores), despite the economic and political uncertainty. Good luck, JLP, Tesco and the like – it's a valiant try and I hope your bravery is rewarded.

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