Remembering the Christmas ads that touched our hearts

Still of Buster, the dog from the new John Lewis Christmas advert 2016.

Forget about the Christmas movies – these days it’s the big budget ads we want to see, writes Suzanne Harrington

IT is directed by an Oscar winner — Tom Hooper, who did The King’s Speech. It has an original cinematic score. It features a helicopter-flying woman dressed in a red power suit. It cost millions.

No, nothing to do with Hillary, and not a Hollywood blockbuster either, but the latest Christmas advert for Marks & Spencer.

Featuring a kickass Mrs Claus in the style of Emma Thompson, this year’s ad, according to a statement from the retail chain, is the most “customer centric” and “socially immersive” ad campaign to date. Huh?

M&S says it has had “input from thousands” of its customers in the creation of Mrs Claus, who has her own hashtag #LoveMrsClaus, and while not delivering last minute gifts by helicopter to a gorgeous London townhouse — because reindeers are so last year — she is curled up in Lapland, wrapped in cashmere and reading Fifty Shades of Red.

It is a smart, feminist narrative, a slick Scandi-imbued combination of glamour and warmth.

The ad was premiered — you know, like a movie — on November 11, once again totally throwing the idea that there are 12 days of Christmas out the window.

The Christmas Marks and Spencer ad has really captured the public’s imagination.
The Christmas Marks and Spencer ad has really captured the public’s imagination.

The day before, on November 10, the John Lewis shops premiered theirs.

Featuring a super-cute six year old actor, and two more playing her mum and dad, plus a trampoline and the family dog — hashtag #BusterTheBoxer — it’s less elaborate than the M&S spectacle, but intensely heart warming and adorable because it involves furry animals — foxes, a badger, a hedgehog and a squirrel.

Imagine if David Attenborough had too much sherry and made a Christmas ad — even if you hate Christmas, you could not help but melt into smiles at the sight of joyously trampolining (and entirely CGI) wildlife, bouncing to the strains of One Day I’ll Fly Away.

It cost around seven million quid to make, and the rest to buy media space, from Sky to Snapchat, but John Lewis think it’s worth the financial effort.

Over the past four years, their Christmas ads (variously featuring a lonely old man on the moon, a penguin, a bear and a hare, and little boy) have increased their sales by 16% during what marketing people call the primary gifting period and what the rest of us call Christmas.

John Lewis festive advertising has become such an annual event — and not just to industry wonks — that their ads have been parodied by Aldi.

Christmas ads are desperate to convey hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’ — and not ‘higgy’, as I’ve always called it), that feelgood Danish concept of ultra-cosiness involving warmth, glowy firelight, and love.

The Christmas reality — toy adverts klaxoning kids months in advance, parents remortgaging to afford it all, mummies pressured to make everything ‘perfect’ — can get a bit stressful and repetitive, hence our mass hypnosis when viewing ads that present a hyper-stylised version of Christmas where everyone loves their presents, loves their families, and loves Brussel sprouts.

These ads encourage us to step away from ordinary Christmas into a better pretend version.

For adults, Christmas is primarily about nostalgia, about trying to recapture that magical feeling you had when you were five.

We go to great effort to rekindle this elusive sensation, and marketing departments absolutely know this.

There are YouTube channels that feature Irish Christmas ads from the 1980s, triggering waves of hazy nostalgia as you watch that ESB ad of the rural Irish Mammy getting the house ready for the return of the beloved son; the killer sophistication of Black Magic, the chaste eroticism of the woman sticking her finger into a glass of Baileys; the pompoms and majorettes and the annoying song for Quality Street; the chap surfing to Carmina Burana for Old Spice — “the mark of a man”.

Tia Maria and Castella cigars, and the next morning, BiSoDol, which “beats indigestion fast”. And Penneys, who have always “gotta whole lotta things for Christmas”.

Love, generosity, inclusion, goodwill to all — contemporary ads are far smoother and subtler than the eighties clang of product marketing. Consumers — us — are more aware, more sophisticated in our tastes and outlooks.

We no longer exist inside localised bubbles. We like to think of ourselves as ethical and well-informed.

This has led to the #StopFundingHate campaign launched in November, which asks big brand names to reconsider advertising in right-wing tabloids — the Sun, the Mail, the Express.

The campaign asks if it might be a bit hypocritical to advertise brand values of kindness and inclusion in publications that they say promote divisiveness and exclusion — it’s not very Christmassy, is it?

The campaign is gaining ground.

Lego — that classic Christmas staple — has stated that it will no longer be placing adverts in the Daily Mail.

Marks & Spencers and John Lewis have also been asked by #StopFundingHate to consider their choice of print outlets — so far, John Lewis have demurred despite stating how they “fully appreciate the strength of feeling around this issue.”

That the debate is happening at all, and in public, is down to social media.

When John Lewis tweeted in relation to #StopFundingHate how they “never make an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper”, one individual tweeted back, “It’s not an editorial judgement. It’s an ethical one. It’s a marketing one. It’s a business one.”

Meanwhile, we continue to be deluged by a tsunami of seasonal hyperbole. The best, the happiest, the most beautiful, the most perfect, the ideal — all available at your local store, or at the click of a mouse.

Exhausting, isn’t it? Perhaps we could all go on holiday until December 24.


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