What makes a great Christmas ad?

In the run up to Christmas 2012, The Drum asks some of the top creative directors in the UK to tell us what they think makes a great Christmas ad.

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Christmas advertising: Like a box of (not so) assorted chocolates?

Sarah Druce, creative director at MARS London, discusses what makes a great Christmas ad in her eyes, and her favourite Christmas ads of 2012.

While it might be a religious festival, there’s no getting away from the fact that Christmas is the key selling season of the year. There’s a huge amount at stake and many of our leading retailers and brands go all out to secure sales.

But they need to communicate the commercial message while respecting the nostalgic childhood memories most of us have of Christmases past. They also need to respect the innocence of younger audiences, many of who still believe in Santa. That said, brands can and do influence the way we celebrate Christmas. Coca-Cola was instrumental in developing the appearance of the large bearded Santa in a red suit that we all know and love. Yet advertisers are playing to a willing audience. We all grew up with Christmas advertising and the best ads are part of what makes for a great traditional Christmas along with the tins of Roses and Quality Street!

So now for my look into what makes for a great Christmas ad. I hate to be predictable but I’m going to start with the famous retailer who is never knowingly undersold. The John Lewis Christmas ads have proved to be a game changer and a standard setter for the genre. That’s a huge achievement for the retailer and its agency, Adam & Eve/DDB. Unless I’m mistaken, there just wasn’t the same sense of anticipation around the Christmas ad season before John Lewis muscled in on the game. Now it seems like not just the marketing community, but the whole of the UK population gets ready for the John Lewis annual seasonal epic. It’s become part of the build up to Christmas along with office parties and the Christmas number one. John Lewis has made it into the seasonal fixtures along with advent cards, Noddy Holder and Wham!

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While clearly it’s had massive exposure and is hugely popular, that doesn’t lessen just how great the John Lewis ad is. It tells a story, possibly one that needs several views to completely ‘get’ it. That can only be a good thing when you think about how many times it will be viewed between now and Christmas. Thank goodness for the absence of any irritating, simplistic cliché that will piss the average viewer off after one showing. It is unmistakably festive and nostalgic but totally escapist.

While adults and children alike can identify with the snowman’s quest to find the perfect present we are not bashed around the head with the grim reality of crowded stores and stressed out shoppers that some ads show us. We are taken on a journey that tugs at our heart strings like the best love song or romantic film. Add to that a wonderful pace and anticipation that hold the audience wrapt until the closing scene as well as wonderful cinematography, and you’ve got a winning formula. It’s a piece of art and works for every possible audience you can think of, young and old.

While the John Lewis ad contains everything that makes for a great Christmas ad, it does stand apart from most of the other seasonal campaigns this year by taking an escapist approach to the genre. Most of the others have gone for big doses of reality and share similar characteristics. They focus on real families all doing similar things filmed in a hand-held camera style that’s almost Peep Showesque. It’s almost as if some of our leading retailers got together in a room and agreed on a theme for Christmas 2012. 

Morrisons is my favourite of these reality approaches. It’s helped down with generous dollops of gentle humour – the turkey wrestling scene is hilarious. It treads a careful balance between the stresses and the joys of the festive season. And while mum is the main protagonist there is little scope for the criticisms of sexism that Asda has suffered. It illustrates mum’s trials and tribulations at Christmas without making her out to be a drudge. Nor is dad made out to be clueless. We can all sympathise with the family’s predicament and a lot of the time they are shown working it out together.

Asda has tried to do something similar, but it’s just all too frenetic and as we all know from reactions from various quarters it’s upset quite a few people.

Nostalgia seems to characterise many of the other ads this Christmas. Coca-Cola gives us what we expect of the brand, a dreamy ad with its familiar red truck and jolly Santa. It’s the old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to the Christmas ad and it remains as brilliant as ever.

Tesco plays the nostalgia card again by a deft use of favourite rock and pop classics from the 70s and 80s including Another One Bites the Dust, You’re my Best Friend (clearly fans of Queen!), Lionel’s Richie’s Hello and Prince Charming, the latter playfully targeted at dad as he comes to a last minute rescue handing out champagne.

If we’re honest as a Christmas advertiser there’s a limited creative palette you can draw on and certain unwritten rules you need to abide by. The ads I’ve written about play the game brilliantly in the main. While it’s key to secure stand out - retailers like Marks and Spencer score a relative fail on that front this Christmas - those who break the rules do so at their peril. This tension is what makes the seasonal advertising game a tricky one and herein lies the challenge.

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