Are Christmas TV ads naughty or nice?

The Christmas TV commercials are an integral part of the festive season. Kelly O’Brien and Barbara Scully give their opposing views on their heartstring-tugging sentimentality.

Are Christmas TV ads naughty or nice?


By Kelly O’Brien

Nothing says Christmas like the whispered chant of ‘holidays are coming’ tinkling merrily from your television set.

Coca Cola’s ad truly signals the start of the festive season. It has everything — bells, twinkly lights, spellbound kids, snow, trees, candles and an air of utter magic.

Only the meanest of scrooges could resist singing along to the jingle — it’s catchier than a winter cold.

While this iconic ad runs year on year, department store John Lewis creates a new installment every 12 months — each one more heartwarming than the last.

The John Lewis Christmas ads have proved to be a game changer and a standard setter for the genre. This year they continue to tug on heartstrings with the story of a young boy called Sam and his beloved penguin Monty.

The advert follows the relationship between the little boy and his pet as they have fun in the park, go sledging, and jump on trampolines.

Soon enough, Monty begins to get wistful whenever he sees public displays of romance, and Sam begins to think his best friend might want a love of his own.

In just over two minutes we are taken on a journey of wonderful pace and anticipation that hold the audience rapt until the closing scene. It’s a piece of art, really.

What’s more all the proceeds from the featured song ‘Real Love’, recorded by Tom Odell, go to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

John Lewis gets that Christmas is about children, nostalgia, and storytelling. Their ads are mini-narratives with heartwarming conclusions, whether it’s the cute little rabbit making sure he’s able to spend Christmas with his best friend, or the snowman fighting against incredible odds to bring his lady some yuletide presents.

Of course, the public also has to doff their festive bobble hats to Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Guinness whose ads have all made their merry mark on the season.

The operatic score of Debenhams’ 2012 ‘Wherever you are’ advert, for example, is an incredibly moving piece, while Marks and Spencer largely tread on the lighter side, relying on celebrity appeal — in 2009, with Myleene Klass, Stephen Fry, James Nesbitt and Joanna Lumley.

Guinness tends to go with a more cinematic, artistic approach — who could forget those signature scenes of freshly fallen snow on a crisp and peaceful backdrop of Dublin, that iconic line echoing in our minds? Even at the home of the Black Stuff, they dream of a white one.

Over the years, companies have realised people react better to adverts that aren’t directly trying to sell something.

So they skirt around the objective by having Santa tuck into some Cornflakes as a wide-eyed toddler looks on in awe or, simply, by wishing you and yours “the very best of everything this holiday season”.

Though the Kellog’s ad is overtly American, it’s been running here every Christmas for years. If this little blonde angel’s “Ho, ho, ho” at the end doesn’t melt your heart, nothing will.

But it can very easily go wrong, as Sainsbury’s found out recently.

The latest ad offering from the UK grocery chain is based on the 1914 Christmas Day Truce where British and German soldiers dropped arms to play football with one another.

At the end of the advert, the German soldier discovers a bar of chocolate that had been left in his jacket pocket by a British soldier — a special version of the bar will be on sale in Sainsbury’s outlets for £1, with all profits going to the Royal British Legion.

While it’s a fantastic ad, it resulted in a backlash for Sainsbury’s who have been deemed hypocritical —it recently emerged they are knocking down a First World War memorial in Bristol in order to build a new store.

When done well though, the Christmas ad can live on for decades.

An old Barry’s Tea ad, for example, brings you right back to Christmas in your mammy’s house, where you would routinely mind the fire, raid the tin of Roses and offer to “put the kettle on”.

In 1980, the ESB made a similarly nostalgic short set to Dusty Springfield’s “I think I’m going back”. The ad depicts a son heading home to his mammy’s house for Christmas.

The best ads of the season are the ones that touch on the true emotions of Christmas, those that drop the cynicism that usually dominates the advertising world, finding ways to capture the childlike anticipation, genuine excitement and heart-warming magic of the Christmas season.

These are the ads that sell feelings — the ones that create a little warmth deep in your chest. It may be a marketing ploy, but at least it’s one we can get a little enjoyment out of.


Barbara Scully

You know what I hate about Christmas TV ads? Their dishonesty. Instead of the normal advertising message which goes something like “buy this because, although you don’t realise it, you really need it,” at this time of year advertising dresses itself up as messages about ‘love’ and ‘caring’ and ‘being together’. It’s all sentimentality — designed to pull at our heart strings — and very little substance.

Can you just imagine the excitement of the advertising account executive who hit on the idea of using the centenary commemorations of World War One to make an ad about the temporary truce that happened on Christmas Eve 1914 in some of the front line trenches and the football match that was played between the English and German troops? I bet he didn’t sleep until he could present his idea to Sainsbury’s. The resulting ad carries not a mention of the stuff you can buy in said supermarket but from a Christmas perspective it’s got it all; the feel good factor, the triumph of good over evil, albeit short-lived as it ultimately was. It is also raising funds for the British Legion. Of course it is.

But the ad that has caused the most stir so far is this year’s offering from another British retail giant, John Lewis. Here we have a little boy and his (very cute) pet penguin— at least that’s what I thought it was until it gets to the end and you see it’s his imaginary friend based on a tatty furry toy penguin. Anyway this imaginary friend penguin is looking for love and specifically romantic love. Because it’s very clear that this penguin loves the boy and the boy loves him back. But the penguin wants...I don’t know.. maybe he wants a good shag! Anyway in the end the boy, being the selfless, kind soul he is, gets the toy penguin a new toy penguin to be his friend. And if the views this load of tosh has garnered on YouTube are anything to go by, we love it. Personally I think they missed a trick in not getting Benedict Cumberbatch to voice the ad. “And the little pengwing is looking for love” (Google it).

Marks and Spencer have also gone for the feel good vibe this year and ditched the celebrity laden glitz for a couple of rather ditzy fairies who fly about in party dresses, through the snow, sprinkling ‘kindness’ down on unsuspecting people below. Oh and that includes a family of kids all happily and cosily watching TV and playing on their ‘devices’ until the fairies sprinkle their house with a power cut so that the kids can go out and play in the snow.

Oh yes, these fairies are better parents than we are. Again I think M&S missed a trick in not making the fairies a bit bold— causing a bit of mayhem at Christmas— which if my experience of Christmas is anything to go by, would be more realistic.

And that’s the other thing. It’s always snowing in Christmas ads. I mean how many white Christmases have you experienced in Ireland? But in the imaginary Christmas world of TV advertising it is always snowing.

There is one genre of Christmas TV advertising that doesn’t bother with making us feel worthy or making us cry; the luxury brand ads, particularly the perfume houses. They indulge in over the top glamour, usually throw in a Hollywood actress and often feature smouldering sexuality. Their message seems to be that Christmas is always about hot sex. Really? I mean, how many times have you .... oh never mind.

And lest you think Ireland is immune to such nonsense I offer you ‘The Perfect Surprise’ ad from Three. Having paddled in icy rivers and climbed a few snow covered mountains Dad arrives home with the perfect present for his daughter. A cloud. Yep, a cloud which immediately floats out the door, sprinkles a bit of light snow on the garden and heads off. I bet the account executive behind this offering doesn’t have kids.

And let’s not forget the daddy of them all — the Coca Cola Christmas Ad. That convoy of huge juggernauts covered in fairy lights trundling through snowy villages leaving a carbon footprint that would knock out every polar bear on the planet, including Coca Cola computer generated ones.

This entire sensory overload plays out to the mindless repetitive tune of ‘holidays are coming’ which makes no sense even in modern multi cultural Ireland. Holidays happen in summertime. But making sense isn’t really a feature of Christmas ads.

I have however, one confession to make — the Sainsbury’s World War One ad did make me cry. But surely there’s enough crying at Christmas?

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