Blood in the snow

How did Christmas in Britain become an advertising combat zone?

Christmas advertising in the UK was not always like this. At least, not as far as I remember. Perhaps it’s a question of perception, but when I was a kid, advertising over the festive season seemed mostly about convincing me that I really, really needed to persuade my parents to buy the latest piece of overpriced plastic. (A Hot Wheels race track! A Star Wars action figure! A Transformer!) This tactic, often called “pester power”, was later reigned in by European legislation.

As I grew older, the appearance of Christmas lights in the high street coincided with ad breaks that became cluttered with alcohol, perfume and retail brands. The latter weren’t doing anything arty – they were just offering us the lowest prices. In this environment, a Coca-Cola ad featuring sparkly trucks (“Holidays Are Coming”, 1995) seemed almost revolutionary.

Today, the blizzard of Christmas creativity has been described as the British ad scene’s Super Bowl – or even “a blood sport”, according to Campaign Asia. I believe it all began in 2011 with an ad for retailer John Lewis (still the acknowledged master of the festive spot along with its agency Adam&eveDDB) called “The Long Wait”.

It remains my favourite because it focuses on human relationships rather than animated snowmen or animatronic animals. And, dammit, the bloody thing still makes me cry. Since then, John Lewis has been under pressure to outdo itself every year.

The success of the John Lewis spots persuaded retailers (and others) that the secret of an effective Christmas ad was not to bluster about prices, which they could do the rest of the year, but to connect emotionally with consumers; to persuade people that they liked, trusted and felt in tune with the brand.

The spirit of Christmas creativity has now spread to other countries and sectors: the Christmas lottery ads in Spain, for example, rival those of John Lewis for their tear-jerking capability. McDonald’s, Samsung, HP, even Heathrow Airport – they’re all aiming straight for our hearts.

I’m sure you’re not remotely interested in my personal favourites, but just for the record, my five-year-old adores the Heathrow teddy bears; Madame Tungate (because she’s French and stylish) prefers the Thomas Burberry extravaganza; while I relished the H&M spot (because…Wes Anderson).

In a few weeks it will all be over, and another British advertising tradition will begin: the battle to sell us a vacation in the sun.


By Mark TUNGATE, editorial director, EPICA AWARDS