Can you really give Father Christmas Alzheimer’s? We find out about the quandaries overcome in the making of Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Aardman animated Christmas spot.
From Buster the Boxer to basking in love from Mrs Claus and finding the ‘greatest gift you can give your family’, this year’s Christmas ads have been remarkably upbeat, focusing on themes of togetherness, happiness and joy because – let’s face it – 2016 hasn’t been the easiest of years. But in bucking the trend for a somewhat sombre subject matter, one campaign stands out from the rest, re-appropriating the festive season’s jolly figurehead in a bid to draw attention to one of the world’s greatest medical challenges.
Dementia, with its symptoms including memory loss and confusion, affects more than 850,000 people in the UK, and one in six people over the age of 80 are destined to fall victim. More than half of those diagnosed (62%) have Alzheimer’s disease. So what if Santa Claus was one of the many unlucky ones? That’s the reality explored by Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK) in its Christmas campaign ‘Santa Forgot’.
The brainchild of James Fentiman, head of art direction at PR agency Freuds, the campaign began life as a possible Christmas idea for another client a few years back. Having been filed away for a “rainy day”, Fentiman says he carefully considered who could take the idea forward and approached the relatively new charity ARUK to “come in and see a quick video put together for the idea”.
ARUK director of communications and brand Timothy Parry recalls that first meeting and asking Fentiman to play the video again and again, on a loop, immediately drawn to the simplicity of the idea. “I was conscious that it was quite provocative,” he says. “So, the first challenge was – have we got permission to do this?”
Going on to gather public opinion via focus groups, Parry reveals he was relieved to find an 80/20 split among those surveyed. “It gave us permission to proceed. If you put any idea in front of 1,000 people, you’ll never get 100% agreement, and that little bit of tension said to me we had something that would provoke debate.”
But despite the all-important green light from the client, Fentiman decided to hold one more focus group – with his mum, stepdad and father-in-law.
“You always worry that something won’t be well received, so I decided to show the video we had put together for the idea to my family to get a sense of whether we’re really allowed to do this. If we give Santa Claus Alzheimer’s, will there be a huge backlash? The research suggested no, but I thought I’d check,” he reveals.
Though his mother’s reaction (‘you can’t give Father Christmas Alzheimer’s’) planted a seed of doubt, Fentiman’s stepdad and father-in-law found the idea powerful and hard-hitting – “if we got the tone right and approached it sensitively.”
Following an early instinct to use animation to keep the story “in the realm of fantasy” Freuds approached Aardman Animations, engaging its head of new business and executive producer Jason Bartholomew. After falling in love with the idea Aardman pitched two of its animators, with Asa Lucander chosen after she inadvertently featured a ‘memory quilt’ which is used to help Alzheimer’s patients reflect and draw back on memories.
“There were two routes on the table, both two-dimensional to be flexible and cost-effective, and I guess really to show a different side to Aardman,” explains Bartholomew. “We’re traditionally known for stop-frame but we do a lot of different kinds of animation that we’re probably not recognised for.”
Around six months in production, Bartholomew recalls that while the storyline was “pretty much” there from the beginning, there were also messages coming from the research and focus groups that needed to be built in. The team had to do this in a way that would keep the narrative hopeful, not depressing. “We had to make sure it wasn’t going to upset people too much but also had to be careful to not make a twee film that would get lost,” says Bartholomew.
Parry adds that there were permutations, revealing the original idea was about getting people to think about spotting the symptoms in family members over Christmas but that didn’t work particularly hard for ARUK. “So how do you weave a rational concept about research into a fantasy story? That wasn’t easy and we discussed a lot of different ways of doing things but I think it’s come out all the better from that healthy differing of opinion.”
Unlike the storyline, however, the characters didn’t wander too far from Lucander’s pitch, though Bartholomew admits the dad’s ‘Scandinavian look’ from the original storyboard was toned down, joking perhaps “Asa had been watching too much BBC Four” while drawing.
Apart from a “little bit of CGI”, Bartholomew highlights the struggle to cut down a two-minute film into 60-second and 30-second edits as one of the biggest challenges – as the charity couldn’t afford 120-second TV spots.
“When you work with charity clients there’s a requirement to be creative and as a producer there’s more responsibility to make sure the message stays clear while also affording a real creative freedom as they’re more open to taking more risks,” he reveals, adding that, although charities may choose Aardman because it’s “safe”, it offers the studio the chance to pitch directors who perhaps aren’t that well-known and to show off its talented roster.
“You know any money they spend needs to be well spent so it’s a really important job,” he says.
With animation working full steam ahead it fell on the Freuds ‘talent team’ to find a voiceover, recruiting none other than Stephen Fry. Having worked with Christopher Ecclestone previously, ARUK was aware of the gravitas of having a celebrity attached.
“As a character, it’s fair to say he [Fry] is a national treasure and as soon as you hear his voice you think ‘this is Stephen Fry – it’s going to be worth watching’. For us, as a charity, it gets attention to the serious stuff we’re dealing with,” explains Parry, adding that Fry nailed the recording on the first read-through, laughing “we didn’t really know what to do with the rest of the hour”.
At around 85% complete, Aardman, Freuds and ARUK decided to put the ad to the test, inviting charity ambassador Liz Ayre, who lost her husband to early-onset Alzheimer’s, and her daughters to watch.
“The most powerful part is when the little girl whispers ‘I believe in you’ in Santa’s ear,” says Parry. “It’s actually delivered by Ciana, one of Liz Ayre’s daughters. It’s really special that the only other voice apart from Stephen Fry is a young lady who tragically lost her dad to this awful disease.”
Of the overwhelming swell of support for the ad, Parry deems it “vindication” for a great idea, but admits he’s not blind to those who don’t love it.
“What’s interesting to see with the negative comments is that, rather than us having to weigh in and explain ourselves, other people are doing it for us. So there is debate but it’s not ARUK monitoring it and although it’s not a direct response advert, we’ve already seen 10,000 donations via the text number which shows how much it’s connecting with people.
“Just to see the number of people sharing their experiences and hopes for research is exactly what we wanted. For us, it’s about brand awareness, storytelling and engagement.”
This article was originally published in The Drum Magazine.