In advertising circles there’s a lot of discussion at this time of year about The Christmas Ad: which brands have nailed it and which have disappointed or even irretrievably damaged their reputations in pursuit of stand out and a share of the estimated £70bn Xmas sales pie.
There’s always a tension between our desire for novelty and our love of tradition at Christmas, but this year, I think tradition has the edge and this is why.
In uncertain times, humans gravitate towards certainty: we are hardwired to do this. Fleeing the unknown has helped the human race to survive.
And the level of uncertainty that’s facing us today is unique in history, it’s not just the economy, or political unrest, it’s also social structures, health, the environment and even personal identity – meaning we have fewer spaces of certainty to take refuge in. Indeed, these are VUCA times, an acronym coined by the US military in Vietnam for situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Altogether it’s a potent recipe for unease.
Recent research by Flamingo outlines three key human responses to uncertainty:
- Escape towards predictability;
- Arm ourselves with skills or knowledge so we can take back control;
- Ignore it altogether and hope it will go away.
We retreat from the source of our discomfort and look to the familiar. Brands seeking to thrive must provide beacons of stability and predictability for consumers to gravitate towards.
And so we return to the Christmas advert. What could be more familiar and reassuring than Christmas? The traditions of decorating your home, preparing a meal and welcoming family and friends in for feasting and merriment are a mid-winter high point that’s been with us for centuries.
The exchanging of gifts is not so well established, dating back to the retail and manufacturer opportunism of the Victorian era – and the present day manifestation of this is is the cause of much negative feeling about Christmas. The average UK household spends £821 on Christmas, £475 of which is specifically on gifts. Yes, it’s a time of rampant commerciality (and consumers are increasingly rejecting this, at least in public), but all the things we know and love about Christmas (religious or not) are still there, a constant and familiar thread running through our lives.
Ads that play on this may feel hackneyed, clichéd and schmaltzy to some, but the reality is that Christmas is Christmas because it’s traditional. The McDonalds ad is perfect example - the little girl clutching her Happy Meal carrot stick “for the reindeer” through an afternoon of Christmas shopping with Dad, only to force them return to McDonalds later when her brother helpfully points out that Santa has more than one reindeer.
A simple tale, well told, is the essence of a good traditional Christmas ad. Which is why, according to YouGov’s 2017 ad awareness stats, Moz the Monster is the worst performer of the last 5 John Lewis Christmas ads. The story gets muddled somewhere between the friendly monster and the nightlight that’s supposed to keep him away. What are we meant to take out of this? Buy a nightlight and lose your new friend? In contrast, John Lewis’s best performer, for both ad awareness and word of mouth, is 2016’s Buster the Boxer4. This joyful moment is simply told and leverages the emotional pulling power of both children and animals to great effect. The John Lewis formula is strong on the tropes of Christmas, family, togetherness, inclusivity, goodwill, pathos and celebration.
Brands are gravitating towards optimism (see Vodafone’s bright future, giffgaff’s space swimmer) and who can blame them for wrapping their messages in a ray of sunshine when all is doom and gloom in the news?
This year a number of ads play on these tropes successfully, providing genuinely moving moments and that all-important sense of familiarity to reassure and lure in the uncertain consumer:
- Amazon’s joyful delivery of cheery boxes being shipped all over the world;
- The BBC’s redeeming moment of single-parent family togetherness at the talent show;
- Coke’s traditional Christmas ad enjoyed from the sofas of our virtual Gogglebox family;
- Tesco’s inclusive and optimistic view of a diverse Britain ritually roasting / burning the turkey dinner.
There may be nothing new here, but it’s a comforting nothing new. These ads are balm for the soul in a cold dark winter. Merry Christmas to All, and To All a Good Night.
Jen Musgreave is planning partner at Rapp