Joe Blogs: ‘Holidays Are Coming’…How do Christmas ads do it?

I’ve got that warm, fuzzy feeling all over me! There’s music in the air, bright lights all over the office and even the sad little pot noodle I’m eating for lunch seems a bit magical.

This festive time of year is brilliant for so many reasons, which include but are not limited to, eating chocolates at 7am and being a grown adult watching a film starring Kermit the Frog without a shred of irony. But you know what? The gift giving is my favourite part of the whole Christmas experience. I love watching someone close to me open a present that I put a lot of effort into for them and seeing their face as they get excited. Even when they’re only pretending to be excited, so they don’t hurt my feelings, I appreciate the gesture. It’s the build-up to giving the gift that’s so delicious.

From the moment you see the first Christmas ad from ASDA on 2nd November and someone says, “They’re getting earlier every year!” (they’re not); or the first time you see the Coca Cola truck rolling through a snowy village; or the big reveal of the multi-million pound, short film of an ad from a certain department store, you’re on course to the big day when you will finally lay down goods at the feet of your nearest and dearest because you love them and because that’s what you do! Now breathe.

That is pretty much the message in all Christmas ads though, isn’t it? ‘You love your family, don’t you? Buy a thing, buy a thing, buy a thing!’ Normally, that would severely trigger the cynic inside me but every year, without fail, I get wrapped up in eating my feelings and going into debt to prove how much I love people. Where it used to be the Christmas specials and the race to number one in the charts, over the past decade, it’s all been about the ads and I think it’s because they’ve finally worked us out. They’ve distilled the annual manipulation of our emotions into three different formulas and I’m fairly sure I’ve twigged what they are.

1. The Magical Place

Not to be confused with the epic Toys R Us ad that had a song called ‘Magical Place’ (ah memories), these are specifically designed to create a wonderous environment before your very eyes and then fill it with all the things they want to sell you so that you think, “Hmmm, if I have what those people have, perhaps my Christmas will be magical too.” But then we’re too clever for that, right..? For ages, the magical place ads were set exclusively in a forest but now they can be anywhere as long as it doesn’t resemble in any way the Christmas day you, the viewer, will actually have. The Coca Cola ad with the red truck is probably the earliest example of this and Alise Veremeja, our Receptionist hasn’t been able to look at a bottle of Coke without thinking of this advert since the age of 10! That’s some powerful imagery.

However, one of the most outrageous entries from this category is definitely the M&S ad from about ten years ago where a multi-generational group of fashion models, led by Twiggy, are assembled at an ice palace to watch Shirley Bassey sing ‘Get This party Started’ a la James Bond. The theatre of the whole thing, coupled with the way they seamlessly weave in electrical goods, lingerie, dresses, inner wear, outerwear and furniture is a sight to behold. But I like that because the cardigan I bought my mum that year featured in the ad and that brought a bit of glamour to my awkward, ‘hope you like it’ face that I haven’t experienced before or since.

2. The School Show

This year, Sainsbury’s dropped the most recent example of the school show ad, ‘The Big Night’, where a girl dressed as a star sings ‘You Get What You Give’ surrounded by her festively-dressed classmates. The thought process seems simple enough; kids like Christmas, kids go to school, schools do Christmas shows… isn’t this special. Job done! But their simplicity is exactly why they are truly genius. Have you ever been to a primary school nativity? The power of these adverts is that they play on your expectation that it will be the drawn-out repeat of the high-pitched voices and same songs you’ve heard year-on-year, and then give you something that’s quite good.

In turn, the magic comes from the quality of their performance as if they’re imbued with pure Christmas magic. This echoes the scene in Love Actually when the young Joanna sings ‘All I Want For Christmas’. No one was expecting her to be any good at singing and no one expected little Sam to be able to play the drums, yet there they were, singing and drumming their way into our hearts forever. I love that film! That one scene is so good they made the film Nativity, which was great! And Nativity 2, which was good and Nativity… 5? Whatever, it’s clearly a formula that works and they’ll keep on doing it until you stop buying things. On a side note, look out for the moment in ‘The Big Night’ where the kid dressed as a plug jumps into the socket. Probably the best TV moment since, “You ain’t my muvvaaaaa!”

3. The tear Jerker

Ok, now we’ve reached the big leagues. These are the ones that shoot for stars and attempt to be the most talked about thing of the year… they don’t even need to sell you anything. It all started to escalate in 2011 when John Lewis released their ‘The Long Wait‘ Christmas advert that followed a small boy, anxious to get to Christmas as quickly as possible. We assume that he wants to open all his presents but when the day finally comes, he passes them by without looking and appears in the doorway of his parent’s bedroom with a present he’d wrapped especially for them. Naaww. I’m not being funny, that one got me good when it came out. Imagine that, a child at Christmas that wants to give rather than receive! Super cute. Over the years, John Lewis have established themselves as the one to beat with gems such as ‘The Bear & The Hare’ and ‘Monty The Penguin’, each of them placing generosity in the hearts of the small, innocent characters and underscoring it with a softly sung cover version of a beloved pop song. They mix high emotion and drama with the familiar, everyday things we all experience and use it to make us cry. Every. Single. Year. Even when we know it’s coming!

Pretty soon other shops wanted to get in on the action and in 2014, we had the Sainsbury’s advert ‘1914’, which re-enacted the famous football match between the Brits and the Germans on the western front. I cried at that as well but only when we lost on penalties. Now that all the other big stores are attempting their own tear jerker ads at Christmas, John Lewis has fully upped the ante. They reached in the bag and pulled out… Elton John! Is that fair? I don’t really care if it is, I just want to see what they do next. If the big shops are going to keep on trying to outdo each other, it’s only a matter of time before they do the Joe Blogs one.

So why do brands continue to use the same formulas? Because they work! Everybody is talking about them and our Social Media team has collated the stats to prove it. It seems that we in the UK account for almost half the global online conversation about Christmas ads and the most well received was the entry from Twitter(?!). I wasn’t aware Twitter had a horse in the race but for the world’s most argumentative place to have a very popular Christmas ad, there has to be something going on. I mean, the most talked about ad on social media, with 314,000 posts at the time of writing, was the entry from Iceland that was BANNED after it was deemed to breach political advertising rules for highlighting rainforest destruction at the hands of palm oil growers! It didn’t even air and it still had everyone talking.

So, there are clearly widely accepted conventions to these now and they’re rapidly developing into powerful barometers of the zeitgeist. The Advertising Association says it is being driven by ‘intense market competition’, especially within the retail sector, and the rise of big-budget campaigns. It believes spending on ads has jumped nearly 40% in just seven years. BBC News reported that brands spent in excess of £6 billion on Christmas advertising in 2017 and it seems to have paid dividends because they’re right back at it this year with a brand new, beefed-up, swollen slew of creative hopefuls designed specifically to fill you with joy and part you with your hard-earned. Don’t be too down-hearted about it though, it is Christmas…

But do they need to spend all that money? This year, a Christmas ‘advert’ called ‘Love Is A Gift’, made independently for £50, went viral online. I call it an ‘advert’ rather than an advert because it isn’t selling anything, and it isn’t in relation to any retailer. It does look an awful lot like a Christmas ad though. Does that mean that Christmas ads have become a… genre? If so, I look forward to watching the first feature length ad with glee while clutching my credit card and waiting for Thanos to snap his fingers.

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