Stephen Jardine: Christmas adverts aim for the heart not the pocket

After a relatively unsuccessful offering last year, John Lewis has returned this year with a fun Christmas advert featuring Buster the Boxer.
After a relatively unsuccessful offering last year, John Lewis has returned this year with a fun Christmas advert featuring Buster the Boxer.
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Retailers have learned how to make us feel warm at Christmas says Stephen Jardine

There was a time when the ancient Holly Fair at Tenbury Wells was the best indication Christmas was coming. Then school nativity plays and office parties took over as key signs of what was to come. But now we have a new essential trigger for the Christmas season, the blockbuster TV adverts. Not so long ago, Christmas television ads simply teased children with unattainable toys or competed over who sold the cheapest frozen turkey. Then along came John Lewis.

Back in 2007, the retailer was the first to step away from the traditional “buy this because we sell it cheaper” style of advert. From that point the company developed it’s trademark ‘sadvertising’ style mixing mawkish sentimentality with a feel-good ending. Except last year’s £7million “Man On The Moon” effort didn’t really deliver that. As critics were quick to point out, getting some balloons and a telescope is not much consolation when you are spending Christmas all alone in a place with less atmosphere than McDonalds on New Year’s Day.

The result is this year’s outing featuring Buster the Dog which is simply fun all the way. If John Lewis set the standard for Christmas TV adverts, the competition is not far behind. Over the past five years Marks and Spencer, Aldi, Lidl, Sainsburys, Morrisons and Tesco have all joined the fight for the nation’s heartstrings. The end results vary but they all have a common theme, trying to make their customers feel warm at the coldest time of the year.

Price promotions have not served supermarkets or customers well. It’s the poor producer and suppliers who suffer as margins are squeezed to push down the price. The natural conclusion of that was Horsegate.

In store price will always matter but when it comes to showing the nation what a brand is all about on TV at Christmas, money is now a dirty word. Instead it is the heart that matters.

It’s a curious phenomenon. With TV audiences dwindling and airtime rates shrinking, these big blockbuster adverts seem to belong to an old media landscape when budgets and viewers were plentiful. Ironically, it is the new media world that makes it all possible.

In the days leading up to launching this year’s campaign, John Lewis peppered social media with screen grabs and other clues to build audience anticipation. And when the advert was eventually revealed it was on YouTube rather than TV. In fact it was another 12 hours before Buster the Dog appeared on television screens and by that time he was already a trending hashtag on social media. To date an incredible 16 million have watched the advert online in just a week. Then there are the spoof versions of the ad which raise a smile and help spread the message. Add in all the instore promotion and related merchandise and you have a proper marketing phenomenon.

It’s easy to dismiss as schmaltzy and saccharine, created by advertising gurus who pull our emotional levers with the help of a cynical psychologist. But you know what, who cares?

From the death of Bowie to Brexit and Trump, this has been a year like no other and as 2016 draws to a close what harm can come from a few gentle reminders of the fact that we are all just dwellers in time and space, held together by a thread. And if all this leaves you unmoved, you clearly haven’t see this year’s Waitrose advert with a robin coming home for Christmas. Watch it and weep.