Celebrant or subversive? A semiotics analysis of 2015's Christmas ads

Creative Semiotics founder Chris Arning looks at the signs and symbolism embedded by 
brands to activate latent meanings of Christmas in the brains of consumers, with two main themes emerging – celebrants and subversives.

It’s that time of year again. Up go the lights, on comes Slade and out come the Christmas adverts, prompting the usual hue and cry. Beneath the humbuggery and cynical muttering about the commodification of Christmas is secret (guilty?) anticipation – every year becoming a slug fest between retailers with John Lewis and Sainsbury’s crafting epic stories around Christmas.

At Creative Semiotics we have been taking a look at what a semiotic analysis tells us about this year’s crop of Christmas ads.

What is semiotics?

Semiotics is the study of signs embedded in culture, particularly those implicit shared signs based on association that we tend to overlook. Companies employ semiotics to more clearly position and differentiate their brands to ensure they are implicitly communicating what they are meant to communicate. Brands are consumable signs with symbolic values.

Semiotics exploits the fact that our minds work on the basis of associative thinking and there is a collective unconscious powered by deep rooted cultural codes. Big brand advertising often attempts to invest products – particularly in lower involvement categories such as retail – with meaning through positive association. This is no truer than during the festive period in the UK, a secular country, where there is an ambivalence towards Christmas. Arguably, the Christmas ad jamboree is not only about showcasing promotions and jostling for position in the skirmish for the Christmas pound, but represents a gambit to activate latent meanings of Christmas.

We decided to look at 26 of the ads run by retailers in November to see what the main leitmotifs are, taking into consideration the core creative idea, the narrative unfolding, colour scheme, festive symbolism and the score soundtrack.

Without wanting to oversimplify, there seems two broad groups within this year’s bundle, aligning themselves along the axis of celebrant or subversion; that is, ads whose main thrust is to earnestly celebrate the spirit of Christmas and those seek to gain cultural capital through subverting it. For argument’s sake we’ll call them the celebrants and the subversives, and each has its leaders, prototypical

The celebrants

The celebrants group is led by John Lewis and includes Waitrose, Littlewoods, Lidl, TK Maxx, Aldi, Harrods, DFS, Sainsbury’s, Ikea, Debenham’s, Morrison’s and Very. The ads are characterised by schmaltz and sentiment, portray smiling families around groaning tables, mothers labouring over stoves, and flaming Christmas puddings. They showcase earnest to toil to deliver the products we depend upon to create, as in DFS, Littlewoods, Very and Morrison’s. Narratives are centred around human bonds forged, through family in the case of Sainsbury’s, Aldi, and extending the zone of goodwill towards others in the case of TK Maxx, John Lewis and Ikea.

Christmas traditions are left intact and revelled in, festive symbolism integrated into the narrative in the service of conjuring up a cosy and enchanting ambience. Colour schemes tend to be dark blue, crimson, warm, cream, beige, ruddy brown, rustic colours, evoking the hearth. The camera shots are panned with longer frames and more lingering focus. The music privileges harmony over rhythm with chimed, music box, glockenspiel like instrumentation, hints of the Nutcracker Suite, rich strings, lush chords and the dulcet tones of crooners or a capella singers.

The subversives

The subversives group, meanwhile, is led by M&S and includes Asda, Argos, The Body Shop, Iceland, House of Fraser, Tesco, Boots, Robert Dyas and Primark. This group is characterised by kitsch and playful juxtaposition. The ads depict Christmas as a consumerist bonanza and carnival of fun where anything goes. An attitude of irreverence, euphoria and transgression prevail. Festive emblems, icons and traditions are jauntily mocked. Primark ironically pastiches the Christmas carol, while The Body Shop parodies singing jingle bells.

The ads depict brazen, unashamed indulgence and covetousness. Asda encourages generalised excess, the office party promising a drunken snog. M&S dummies the viewer and pokes fun at the stuffy and schmaltzy with a glitzy romp through an arcade of swagger and neon agitprop. House of Fraser’s tagline ‘Your Christmas, Your Rules’ pimps festive emblems and theatricalises the Christmas banquet.

The colour schemes are much less warm, and tend towards the grey, monochrome or aggressively metallic – the codes of premium design, rather than ersatz luxury. The camera work (fast cuts, transitions) presents a whimsical montage of vignettes rather than an unfolding story and evokes the frenetic rather than the cosy or settled. The music is rhythmic, from funk (M&S), to sub bass dubstep (House of Fraser) to pumping power ballad (Asda) to a souped-up anthem (Argos) and nu folk remix (The Body Shop).

The outsiders

Outside these groups are Harvey Nichols, Currys, Matalan and Lidl (an interesting blend; it sits in both the ‘reverants’ and ‘outsiders’ groups). Of course, the ads analysed fall somewhere on a spectrum between reverence and subversion, John Lewis and M&S clearly representing the extremes.

Semiotician and anthropologist Marcel Danesi writes that pop culture shares, along with religious rituals such as carnival and Halloween, a split between the sacred and the profane. It is interesting that the little girl in the John examples and outliers.

Lewis ad retreats from the profane and subversive (her brother’s games console) seeking the fairy tale innocence in the ‘Man on the Moon’, whereas in the M&S ad the little girl on the way to decorate the tree (sacred) is swept up into mimicking the fast paced glamour of the Christmas catwalking extravaganza – a more exciting interpretation of the season.

Christmas is a time when the gap between society’s haves and have-nots is more starkly marked. It is a time of bonuses and Christmas markets, but also when low income families feel the pinch; put under pressure from a pester power compulsion to spend.

In the consumerist frenzy, it is easy to lose sight of the more hallowed rituals. Brands seek to enchant and console us with the idyllic Christmas fictions we all still hope for, or tempt us with the excess profligacy of wanton consumption.

It is worth remembering that Christmas as we know it is essentially an ‘invented tradition’, a Victorian concoction on a pagan festival initiated by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As cultural historian Eric Hobsbawm reminds us, “‘traditions’ which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented”. Santa Claus would not be as ubiquitous as he is without Coca-Cola.

And our favourite ads of the 26? John Lewis stands on its own – a beautifully shot and original piece of art. TK Maxx is the most strategically surprising as it dares to invent a tradition of neighbourly gifting. Lidl’s ‘Christmas School for Christmas’, however, is probably the shrewdest overall as it reveres Christmas but with lashings of irony and humour.

Chris Arning is founder and director of Creative Semiotics, a consultancy founded to pioneer next phase consumer insight. This feature was first published in The Drum's 9 December issue.

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