Dave Birss' Christmas retail ad review featuring John Lewis, Waitrose, Tesco, M&S, Aldi, Lidl and Boots

It looks like it's that time of year again already. Christmas brings those extravagant ads which underline the importance of the season to the retail industry.

John Lewis' Monty the Penguin trended on Twitter for over a day

Dave Birss, The Drum’s head of TV, was asked to do a round up of this year’s efforts by the Sunday Times. Here’s what he had to say.

1: John Lewis

Yet again John Lewis gives us a moist-eyed masterpiece for Christmas. It’s always refreshing when a brand doesn’t just throw their products in your face but instead makes you feel something.

If you removed the John Lewis logo from the end, their Christmas ads would probably do quite well as short films. And that says a lot about the approach of the agency. As much as John Lewis spend massive amounts of money on the production costs and airtime (last year it was reported to be £7m), each year they get more than their money’s worth through people talking about the ads and passing them around. How often does an advert make you do that? To prove the point, at the time of writing their current ad has more than 4 million views on YouTube. They’ve achieved that in just 24 hours.

Other brands dream of that kind of public adulation.

But John Lewis wouldn’t invest in these ads if all they succeeded in doing was leaving the nation a little bit dewy-eyed. They’re a retail business - not Disney.

The measure of the effectiveness of any advertising campaign is how many sales can be attributed to it. And that’s where these ads do amazingly well. John Lewis’ 2011 Christmas ad (the one with the impatient little boy) scooped the industry’s IPA Effectiveness Award by helping to deliver over a billion pounds in incremental sales.

So is it persuasive? I guess the figures speak for themselves.

What’s most remarkable is they manage to achieve all that by not smacking you in the eye with a load of products and price tags. Unless, they’re hoping to sell a warehouse full of scabby penguins this year.

2: Waitrose

Let’s start with the fact that Waitrose are owned by John Lewis. And that John Lewis are famous for their emotional Christmas ads. And that they usually have an indie-cool piece of music behind them.

That makes it impossible not to make a comparison between this ad and Monty the Penguin. And I think it’s clear which one would win in a shin-kicking contest.

Saying all that, this is actually a pretty nice piece of film (if you can overlook the god-awful saccharine-schmaltz backing track). It’s still about the personal journey of the child of one of their imaginary customers. And it manages to tug on the heart strings. Just not quite as much. If you could measure the effect on a throat-lump-ometer, I’m pretty sure my assertion would stand up.

Despite these similarities, I think it has to do a rather different job from the John Lewis ad. You can buy your Christmas presents just about anywhere - online, in individual shops, in dozens of other chains, in markets. John Lewis are wanting to invite you into their store to choose objects that help to enhance the emotional connection between you and the recipient. Now look at Waitrose. They have people who shop there already. I assume they’re wanting to attract the top-end Sainsbury’s customers to switch. Or get Waitrose costumers to give them a little bit more of their wallet.

And the promise of friendly, helpful staff may do that for the people who aren’t watching the pennies. But I’m not convinced. I don’t know if this strategy will nudge the effectiveness needle significantly. But, in fairness, that’s not an easy thing to do.

3: Tesco

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in the home counties anymore!

There’s no emotional story of crisis and redemption here. There’s just an endless parade of good, honest people putting aside their aesthetic sensibilities and Christmassing the crap out of their homes, vehicles and cheese counters.

There’s nothing clever here. No underlying message beyond, ‘you like Christmas, we like Christmas’. This is about as low-brow as you can get.

So, reading between the lines, what are they trying to do? Like any retailer, they want more people to spend money with them, and those who already do to spend more. And does this ad give them a reason to do that? I’m afraid the answer to that is a resounding ‘no’.

But, maybe that’s just me. I find it hard to relate to anyone who’d stand in a massive crowd in a carpark outside a supermarket to watch some electric lights. Maybe, if those people actually exist in this peculiar world, Tesco will succeed in getting them to hand over a few more quid this year for some own-brand mince pies.

4: M&S

It looks as if the broadcasters’ dreams have come true this Christmas. A one minute forty second TV ad? Ooooh! Yes please!

So it starts with all the prettiest ladies in town converging on a hipster warehouse. They remove their faux-fur M&S winter coats to reveal their itty-bitty fairy wings and cocktail dresses - just so they can go back outside in the bitter cold to bestow wishes on unsuspecting humans. Brrrrr! A cross-dressing man gets a new bra, someone who’s stupid enough to hang clothes outside in the snow gets a selection of ball gowns that will be irretrievably damaged by morning and two attractive strangers get a sprinkling of sexual tension. And if the fairies aren’t operating in your neighbourhood, you can always pick these items up in-store.

That’s what M&S ads are all about. They’re a stylish parade of goods alongside the type of sexiness that won’t make your vicar blush. And a lovely soundtrack that won’t have you reaching for the mute button.

For a down-and-dirty retail ad, M&S’s Christmas extravaganza is lovely to watch. And watch it you will - night after night for the next two months. It doesn’t pull any emotional strings (for me, at least) but it screams Christmas. And it teases the style-conscious shopper with plenty of covetous treats.

If the job of the ad is simply to get fashionable ladies inside their doors to browse their wares, I’m pretty sure it will succeed. Once they’re in, they can then be coaxed into the food hall to take some business away from Waitrose.

5: Aldi

This ad is another parade of bad actors representing each of the different areas of society that Aldi are hoping to speak to. But what they all have in common is a terrible sense of humour. Every quip is tired and obvious and elicits a groan. After I watched it once, I thought I’d watched it two times too many.

I guess their approach of trying to tick off every demographic and stereotype they could think of in a ten minute brainstorm session is at the core of this horror show. We’ve got young people and old people, military and civilians, northerners and southerners, spacemen and earthlings, Jools Hollands and not-Jools Hollands and a smattering of ethnic diversity.

And all of them are enjoying Christmas with the assistance of Aldi, it seems.

The strategy is clearly to say to all those people who think they are above shopping at Aldi that they’re not. It’s no longer just a haven for the destitute, the broken and the down-and-out. Heck! Even musically-talented TV presenters shop there (or at least are happy to take a pay check to state that they’d be happy to have their piano decorated with the sponsor’s food products).

Saying that, I think there’s a good chance that it’ll put Aldi on the radar for many people. All they have to do is get people through the doors for a sniff around - the prices and offers will lead to sales after that.

It will, however, be an ad that will make me want to change the channel. Or at least stick my fingers in my ears and say ‘la-la-la-la-la…’ until it fades to black.

But - on the plus side - at least Jools Holland’s family can expect some more extravagant presents from him this year.

6: Lidl

Never mind the mulled wine. At first glance, Lidl’s Christmas ad looks so bright and summery that you half expect to see its cast quaffing Pimms. Instead, they’re led into a grand dining room replete with a roaring fire (they must have been melting) to enjoy a lavish banquet of lobster, turkey and stollen.

Purportedly in the dark about where the food is from, the guests begin to eulogise about its quality and speculate that it is the work of Marks and Spencer or Waitrose. And then of course comes the big reveal: this is in fact Lidl fayre – who would have thought it? Not this motley crew of Hertfordshire locals anyway, who proclaim their shock that such quality items can be found at the discount retailer.

This is Lidl’s most obviously aggressive grab for the middle classes yet. They have been careful to frame this ad around the quality of the produce rather than its cheapness – a smart move to convince M&S devotees that they will not be sacrificing standards by shopping for their Christmas luxuries elsewhere this year. The stollen isn’t there by accident either, carefully placed as it is to reinforce the message that you can find something a little out of the norm on Lidl’s shelves.

This ad and its strapline have been carefully crafted to hammer home the message that you might be surprised by the quality and value Lidl offers – and it may just succeed in persuading the unconvinced to pay it a visit for the first time. But it lacks real Christmas sparkle, and we just can’t escape the feeling that it was shot on a balmy day in July.

7: Boots

Have a seat, make yourself comfortable, wrap a blanket around your chilly shoulders - because it’s story time again.

Pay attention at the beginning! You need to read what it says on the clock for the ad to make sense. Our crew are getting up at the stroke of midnight on Boxing Day. That’s when the magic of Christmas officially fizzles out for another year. But not for these dedicated souls. We watch them all make their pilgrimage to the house of a nurse who is just coming off duty. She deserves it. She’s selflessly worked Christmas day to help other people. And the pleasant surprise she gets is her real Christmas gift.

So hold on a second while I wipe away a single tear.

OK. I’m back with you now.

I have a genuine respect for people like this nurse. I hope in my heart of hearts that this kind of thing actually happens. Because I’m romantic like that.

I’m just wondering what Boots are hoping to achieve from this little tale. Yes, they have the area of healthcare in common with the heroine - but it doesn’t leave you with the message that Boots play any significant role in the lovely climax. The girl who goes into a Boots in the airport seems to do so because everything else was closed. There was no other choice. It was the equivalent of stopping into a petrol station to get biscuits for your Nan because it’s on the way.

I have no problem with this tale of family love. However, if Boots have a successful Christmas, I’d struggle to attribute it to this 60 seconds of film.

This article was first published by the Sunday Times Sunday 9 November 2014.

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