‘Christmas too commercial? We love the ads!’ - Pete Martin

The Boy & The Piano, which stars Sir Elton John, is the John Lewis 2018 Christmas advert.
The Boy & The Piano, which stars Sir Elton John, is the John Lewis 2018 Christmas advert.
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Pete Martin looks at the mini dramas pumped out by retailers for the festive season.

‘It’s Chrrrrrrrriiiiiiissssmmaaaaaaassss!’ Once upon a time, the full-throated holler of Noddy Holder used to usher in the festive period. You heard Slade and Wizzard and Mud oozing out from every shop.
Then you knew ‘twas the season for every 70s pop star to check their ­royalty statement.

Screen grabbed image issued by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) from a Christmas television ad for Aldi alcohol featuring the animated Kevin the Carrot that has been banned for appealing strongly to children.

Screen grabbed image issued by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) from a Christmas television ad for Aldi alcohol featuring the animated Kevin the Carrot that has been banned for appealing strongly to children.

Meanwhile, most of us took a look at our bank balances and turned as pale as Bing Crosby’s biggest hit.

Yet Christmas wasn’t always about spendaholic holidays or credit card bills to make you feel bilious.

Long, long ago, the true story of Christmas was about an unmarried mum-to-be with ­transport ­problems. Picture the poor ­homeless, teenage Mary on her way to a benefits assessment in ­Bethlehem. So, not much has changed it seems. Except, of course, that it would be harder to find three wise men in the whole world right now.

Yet the true tragedy of ­Christmas isn’t just that our empathy has become blunted. It’s that we can’t even tell it’s the season of goodwill until a national retailer puts out a commercial. Now we need a 30-second narrative about a penguin, a snowman or a multi-millionaire rock star to remind us: it’s time to get into debt and fall out with family. The UK’s taste for Christmas ­commercials is a fairly recent development. America has long had a tradition of tentpole advertising around the SuperBowl. In an act of marketing machismo, major US brands vie for popular supremacy.

What’s driving the UK market is different. As the entire retail ­sector falters under the onslaught of online selling, there’s huge ­pressure to make Christmas pay. It’s the most wonderful time of the year for store owners, or the most stressful. For the likes of John Lewis, the ­festive period used to account for 20 per cent of sales and 40 per cent of ­profits.

For a cautionary tale, look no ­further than Woolworths. The high street wonder-store perhaps started the Christmas ad trend. Its 1980s star-studded ‘spectaculars’ featured celebrities whose names you might struggle to remember. As an early victim of the shift to online music sales, Woolies went under at ­Christmas ten years ago.

For the high street, e-commerce is an even more serious challenge now. Inevitably, clicks are cheaper than bricks. It costs less to run online retailing than an actual building with real customer-facing staff – especially when tax avoidance seems built into global operators’ business plans.

The other thing which has changed is the UK advertising’s ­covenant with the public. ­Originally, TV advertising space was in short supply and entry costs were high. Yet, as Fettes-educated adman David Ogilvy once opined, it was a business for “gentlemen with brains”.

Ads were mercifully free of the hucksterism we hated from across the Pond. People said the ads were better than the programmes. It was a charming fiction. But now, unless it’s Christmas, advertisers prefer dreary “martech” (marketing technology) and shouting about prices to gentle jokes and catchy music.

Remember Magic Moments in the 90s? A schoolboy gives a box of Quality Street to the long-suffering lollipop lady. It’s shot with simple brilliance and beautifully acted. When the boy responds to her thanks with a throwaway ‘S’alright’, it really is a magic moment.

This model of understatement makes today’s ads look like overcooked turkeys. Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot returns in a spoof of Coke’s Holidays are Coming, mixed with an allusion to the Italian Job. It is baffling but entertaining.

Argos also tries too hard in The Christmas Fool. The Gremlins-style idea looks like a knock-off for when your ad budget won’t stretch to licensing the real thing. But these are Christmas works worthy of Dickens himself besides the unreadable hokum handed out this year by Debenhams: “Do a bit of you know you did good”.

The marketing team explained that the idea was to celebrate ‘fist-pump moments’. I challenge you to slip this phrase into the conversation over Christmas dinner. Back in the day at Grace Brothers’ department store, I doubt even John Inman could have served you that line with a straight face.

There were more creditable contenders for this year’s Christmas commercial hit. Iceland monkeyed about with the issue of palm oil and deforestation. The BBC’s mother and child reunion had a docu-drama look, given a glow by a John-Lewis-esque soundtrack.

Which brings you to the mother and father of all modern Christmas ad-mongers, John Lewis and Partners. The partnership’s customer director, Craig Inglis, brings a canny Scottish knack to the brand story. Craig prefers brave ideas and a strong instinct for public taste over marketing gobbledygook. Will his efforts with Elton John help sales take off like a Rocketman? Time will tell. But if the aim is to ­kickstart Christmas conversations, John Lewis is still never knowingly under-discussed.

There is, however, one ad this year that has out-John-Lewised them all. Starring a little hedgehog, it’s for a European firm called Erste. If you don’t love it, you may be left out of the fuzzy ad-made warmth. And then, just like Mud sang so long ago, you could feel “lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold…”. Merry Christmas everyone.

Pete Martin is a founding director of Always Be Content agency, with 30 years’ experience in creative industries on both sides of the Atlantic. He is one of Scotland’s top award winning creative professionals. @AlwaysBeContent