How this year has impacted the Christmas ads

Hannah Workman – Senior Account Manager

Every year, the nation awaits with bated breath the release of our favourite retailers’ Christmas ads. It doesn’t matter whether you shop at Waitrose or Lidl – the spectacle of festive films puts any purchasing preferences to one side for a glorious moment. This year, whilst very different, is no different. Except, of course, that perhaps something warm and fuzzy is just what the public ordered – or at least ‘pandemic-appropriate’. We’ve looked at a key handful of retailers’ ads to see if and how the impact of 2020 has influenced the approach taken.

Let’s kick off with the king of Christmas ads, John Lewis & Waitrose. Known for pulling out the stops every festive season with a heart-warming story, an emotional cover song and a multi-million pound budget to boot, the retailer has tailored its approach this year. Not only has it confirmed to have spent significantly less on the production of this year’s ad, but the usual focus on gift-giving has been replaced with kindness and charity, reflected in the name of the ad ‘Give A Little Love’. This message has also been extended in two ways: firstly, the retailer deliberately commissioned eight different animators as a way to support the severely impacted creative industry; and second, it is on a mission to raise £5m for charities, which can be achieved through donations, purchases of exclusive campaign merchandise, and using shoppers’ loyalty cards in store to trigger a donation per transaction. So really, a heart-warming story and an emotional NEW song are still the drivers of this classic series of Christmas adverts. 

A first for Sainsbury’s, this retailer has produced a trilogy of Christmas ads this year, all based on family memories and focusing on family members reminiscing about previous Christmases. Touching here and there on reasons why this year’s festivities may be different for most people, the ads (part 1, part 2 and part 3) are hugely relatable for many families and play to the feelings and memories that are so hugely associated with Christmas.

We’re all familiar with M&S ads; whilst heroing a different collection of food and drink in each one, they all follow a similar approach. And its 2020 Christmas ad is no different: the voyeuristic, cinematic shots of food items we come to expect; that familiar, sensual backing music; the famous line “This is not just [Christmas] food, this is M&S [Christmas] food”. This time, the retailer has engaged with nine global celebrities to add some extra sparkle, with a separate advert to be released every week until Christmas. The first brings the familiar voice of the well-loved Olivia Colman into our living rooms – a very timely choice, what with the recent release of the latest series of The Crown. The combination of Colman’s warmth, humour and references to the past year, along with an added focus on charity donations makes this ‘standard’ M&S advert stand out. 

Moving on to Amazon where, at first, the title ‘The Show Must Go On’ might appear fairly dismissive – perhaps even callous – of a difficult year. However, by heroing a situation with which most, if not all, viewers can resonate – that of, in short, life being cancelled – the ad succeeds in its aim to be warming and uplifting. In addition to that, the brand push is subtle and plays into the storyline with just the right level of promotion, with the Amazon torch pushing the protagonist to the fore. 

The return of the ALDI Christmas ad brings with it the return of Kevin the carrot, and in fact nothing in the story that refers to the struggles of 2020. This is a Christmas advert that could be shown any year – it’s pure escapism and is actually a nice break from other ads that have chosen to reference the impact of the pandemic. Perhaps the retailer thought that would be too obvious, and ALDI’s approach was to carry on as if it was any other year. In doing so, it’s a light-hearted film that continues the now traditional story of Kevin the carrot and his family, and brings with it some Christmas cheer. The on-screen ‘thank you’ message to the nation’s key workers, shown at the end of the film, is a nice touch and grounds the ad back in reality. 

Lidl takes an interesting approach where, on the face of it, the ad looks like it’s all about the visual, though in fact it’s the messaging that really steals the show. Starting off with a mellow sound and the words “Lonely hearts meet through a window”, we’re led to believe this may be a story about the past year. Though when the tempo picks up and we hear the rhyming line “It’s a Christmas ad from Lidl with great prices instead”, it’s clear that the retailer is not afraid to focus on the purpose of the advert and highlight its great products and prices. At the same time, it’s clear that Lidl is up for a laugh and willing to take the mick out of itself (“There’s usually a moment where we want you to feel sad”) – and even its compatriot ALDI: “We don’t need cutesy characters when carrots taste this good”. Overall, an uplifting, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin type approach, finished off – like its German rival – with a thank you to our key workers. 

One that made me smile, the Tesco ad is one of the most overt of them all, putting the pandemic and everything we’ve experienced this year at the forefront of its storyline. Reassuring people that no matter what ‘sins’ they might have committed this year – buying too much loo roll (perhaps a bit of a distasteful reference), not homeschooling the kids on every subject, or not donating to Captain Tom’s efforts – there’s no naughty list for 2020 and we can have what we want from Tesco for Christmas. It’s a great blend of acknowledgement, relatability and humour that makes this one a success. 

So, like every year, there’s a bit of a mixed bag, and certainly some different takes on how to create a Christmas ad that’s fitting for and demonstrates sensitivity towards the year we’ve all had. Animation has clearly stolen the show as a way to overcome distancing restrictions, and escapism, nostalgia and hope – with a sprinkling of humour – are quite prominent takeaways. Perhaps this year will encourage advertisers to take a new approach going forward, where future adverts may take inspiration from the events of the year to create a narrative that resonates more with viewers. Either way, here’s to a brighter 2021!

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