It’s an annual tradition, a showcase for advertising creativity that attracts big-budget competition. It is arguably the only time viewers actually look forward to watching some ads. In the United States, of course, that time is the Super Bowl. In the United Kingdom, however, it’s Christmas.
While the holiday shopping season is of undeniable importance for retailers everywhere, it is a highly anticipated competition in creativity.
“It gets an awful lot of chatter,” said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor with the Schulich School of Business at York University, who hails originally from London. “...The production budgets to do a special ad for this crucial time of year are big.”
In recent years, retailer John Lewis has become an institution. In 2011, the company made a huge splash with an adorable chronicle of a child’s perception of time – how waiting for Christmas can seem like an eternity. The heart-wrenching twist was that when the big day finally arrived, he didn’t maniacally tear the wrapping from his own presents. What he had been waiting for was to race into his parents’ room with his own crudely wrapped gift – for them.
Last year, the store chain created a beautifully animated Christmas fable, with a soundtrack from British pop star Lily Allen, that drew more than 10 million views online. This year, it has delved into the dream world of a childhood boy and his imaginary friend, Monty the Penguin.
John Lewis ran teaser trailers leading up to its ads, a strategy that has become the norm for the massively hyped U.S. Super Bowl ads. The company declined an interview for this story, but said in a statement that the cost of the campaign was £7-million, or more than $12-million – a significant investment.
Monty now has his own Twitter account, with more than 33,000 followers. Its popularity inspired a parody ad from, who else, Penguin Books UK.
John Lewis is selling a children’s book based on its charming story, as well as a line of products including mugs, sweaters, ties, onesies, socks, and ornaments. A pair of stuffed plush penguins sold out within hours. Many other items in the collection are also listed as out of stock on the store website. The store is also creating Monty-themed displays, to draw traffic from people who loved the ad.
Many U.K. companies tug on the heartstrings in their advertising this time of year.
Grocery chain Waitrose tells the story of a painfully shy girl asked to make gingerbread cookies for the school Christmas fair. Repeated failed attempts at the perfect cookie are presented as an analogue to her struggle for social acceptance.
Pharmacy chain Boots shows an exhausted family travelling through the night on Sept. 26, all to create a makeshift Christmas to surprise a loved one who is a nurse and worked through the holiday.
Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s reached back 100 years for its ad, telling the story of a break in fighting on the Western front during Christmas 1914. Though historians can’t be sure, some diary accounts told stories of an exchange of gifts and even a soccer game between opposing troops.
While the ad is beautifully shot, it has also been controversial. Some viewers resented Sainsbury’s using the story of a tragic war where millions lost their lives, to sell groceries.
Sainsbury’s made the ad in partnership with the British Royal Legion, and is selling retro-looking chocolate bars like one featured in the ad, with profits going to the Legion. Sainsbury’s declined requests for an interview for this story.
Christmas is a crucial sales season everywhere, and certainly holiday-themed ads fill the airwaves in North America as well. But many of them don’t have the same blockbuster quality.
In the U.S., this could be because many of the biggest advertisers are preparing for the Super Bowl, just a couple of months away, Prof. Middleton suggests. American advertisers spend millions every year – $4-million (U.S.) last year just for 30 seconds of airtime during the game, not including the cost of making the ad – because it’s a chance to reach millions of viewers. In a world where appointment TV viewing has fallen off drastically, that’s a rare opportunity. And Super Bowl viewers, trained to anticipate splashy big-budget ads, are actually more receptive to watching them than other TV audiences. (This is not a factor in Canada, where many U.S. advertisers don’t bother buying airtime for their splashy ads, and advertisers often just toss the same commercials they’ve been running elsewhere into the broadcast.)
There’s another reason U.K-style Christmas campaigns are not as prevalent in North America: there has been an increased focus both in the U.S. and Canada on pre-Christmas sales (as opposed to waiting for Boxing Day discounts). Storytelling is a good tool for brand-building, but it does not mesh when advertisers are focused on the hard sell.
“The season has become so important that people are out there hustling the sales,” he said. “The idea of doing an emotional message isn’t the same type of fit.”
Even if Canadian advertisers wanted to produce these kinds of creative Christmas ads, the budgets here are nowhere near as large as they are in the U.K., Prof. Middleton added.
Tearjerker ads have become more common everywhere as brands seek to create a powerful bond with consumers through storytelling. But it’s not all emotional: some advertisers have gone for humour to do the job.
Last year, luxury retailer Harvey Nichols got its Grinch on with an uproarious campaign called “Sorry I spent it on myself.” The retailer created a line of terrible gifts – including “real wood” toothpicks (83 cents), “authentic lincolnshire gravel” ($2.85), a sink plug ($2) and more – and invited people to buy “a little something for them, a bigger something for you.”
It was a hit. The entire chintzy line of 26,000 items sold out within 48 hours. The campaign won four Grand Prix awards for the chain and its agency, Adam&EveDDB, at the Cannes advertising festival.
“The response was overwhelming,” said Shadi Halliwell, group marketing and creative director at Harvey Nichols. “...For us, it is the main campaign of the year and we plan for the festive season a year in advance.”
The company will release its holiday ad in the first week of December, and it will have the same tongue-in-cheek approach.
“People react to humour,” said Anne-Marie Verdin, brand director for another U.K. luxury retailer, Mulberry. “It’s like a conversation. If you start talking to someone, and do it in a way that makes them laugh, it starts that conversation.”
Mulberry hired Adam&EveDDB this year for its own cheeky campaign. The ad, which has attracted nearly one million views online, tells the story of an overly competitive family trying to “Win Christmas” by giving the best gift.
A young girl receives a portrait of herself, a puppy, and a unicorn, but conniving grandma wins the day with the season’s it-bag. The despondent boyfriend waves away his unicorn as grandma smiles smugly.
The story is a kind of analogy for what is going on in the ad world in Britain at this time of year.
“There is a tremendously strong creative culture ... we have such a world-famous advertising industry, along with other countries,” Ms. Verdin said. “At Christmastime, all those great creative people really roll up their sleeves. It is an unofficial competition for people to have the best ad, and certainly in the U.K. the amount of creative energy that has gone into everybody’s campaigns is really phenomenal. ... It’s kind of a fun moment of sport for people interested in media, marketing and design.”