The best Christmas ads are more than just selling points – they're cultural touchstones

Poor Moz the Monster. He just wanted to help that little boy sleep, and instead he’s become a Christmas damp squib. The consensus is that John Lewis floundered this year with its festive advertising - of the retailer’s past five yuletide campaigns, this is the first to have garnered anything less than unanimous praise.

It’s a result that has had critics decrying John Lewis’ ‘formula’, saying it’s more tired than the boy in the ad. And looking at the recent Realeyes study conducted via face-reading AI, you might be inclined to agree: John Lewis ranks number 17, with Coca Cola’s Gogglebox spot assuming top rank.

And there’s the clue when it comes to Moz’s woes. Christmas ads are now considered cultural events – milestones, even – rather than just 30 second selling spots. So when John Lewis dropped the creative ball this year, it raised moot points about the nature of festive advertising. For me, the John Lewis letdown isn’t because of fatigue at a now-familiar formula being rolled out yet again; more pertinent is the lack of storytelling nous.

Coke and Gogglebox’s partnership proves that point. Gogglebox was initially seen as a gimmick when it first hit screens four years ago, but has since become an omnipresent part of British culture. In itself, culture is an amorphous beast: an amalgam of this and that, here and there, who we are as people, what makes us tick.

Just like the best Christmas campaigns, Gogglebox is culture. Every week, viewers sit and discuss the week’s events and television programming. Because these are people with backgrounds as diverse as the nation they speak for, the show takes on a narrative adjacent to our own lives. They’re people you can empathise with. You have your favourites. You probably can’t stand some of them. Either way, they’re personalities that reach further than just TV – Gogglebox star Scarlett Moffatt now has a successful career off the back of the show.

Where Coke has Goggleboxers reminiscing about Christmas memories and essentially watching the classic “Holidays are Coming” ad with you, John Lewis this year lacks that connection. It’s a sweet story, yes, but what does it mean? How does it make you feel? Unless you’re a Beatles purist – many of whom spat out their eggnog at the ad’s soundtrack of Elbow covering Golden Slumbers – then it probably doesn’t make you feel a lot in comparison.

It doesn’t tap into the mood of the nation. It doesn’t connect – it solves the boy’s problems, but what about ours? M&S’s Paddington ad, for example, gets directly to the heart. The plot of well-laid marmalade is hopeful and escapist. Paddington sees the good in everyone and that’s what resonates with viewers in these uncertain, pre-Brexit times; his naivety is something we could all learn from, something we wish was replicated the world over. Austerity has driven wages down, prices have risen, we’re not as wealthy, yet this little bear offers us a jar of hope. What’s not Christmassy about that?

When times were good, ads were lavish. “Splash out! May as well get two turkeys, just in case!” Since the recession, taking a moralistic, sensitive standpoint has been the obvious winner, and it’s what’s needed to connect with people.

But Christmas campaigns still have to be about exactly that: Christmas. Marketers should use the nation’s mood as a starting point, the building blocks for the finished product. It doesn’t have to be an explicit reason – Paddington wasn’t arguing the pros and cons of leaving the EU – but to properly cut through, ads should tie themselves to how we as consumers feel at Christmas, given the past 12 months' ramifications.

There are only seven stories in the world, so to actually make Christmas ads stand out, the characters need to resonate. The plot needs to be relatable to where we are now, as a nation. These campaigns have become blockbuster events, and to live up to that hype, they need to live our lives.

Brian Cooper is the outgoing chief creative officer at Oliver Group UK

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