Each year in the lead up to Christmas, the industry waits with bated breath for the blockbuster Christmas ad showdown. In recent years, brands have made a more concerted effort to diversify their advertising output. Yet, despite this, the protagonists for the most hotly anticipated festive campaigns in 2019 were all white actors. Commentators have since suggested that brands are only just scratching the surface with their diversity efforts.
Where are we at?
From the 19th century onwards, inspired by the conservative traditions of the Victorian era, a superfluous array of white families hosted most Christmas ads; a dashing husband, a doting wife and rosy-cheeked children surrounded by Christmas imagery. The representation of minority groups has been far more sparse.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Christmas creative has escaped from the traditional mould as an increasing number of brands put diversity at the top of the agenda.
For example, Ikea’s ad this year presented a mixed-race family. It was widely applauded for putting grime music - the sounds born out of underground black culture - at the heart of its first Christmas campaign. Careful not to appear too ‘woke’, the concept was a graceful nod to this historically sidelined art.
“Christmas is the time of year when brands look to engage everyone in the Christmas spirit - often tugging at heartstrings,” commented Chris Kenna, founder of Brand Advance - a dedicated global diversity media network. “There have been some real leaps forward this year, such as Ikea’s ‘Silence the Critics’ advert which engaged BAME and grime - a great example of a Christmas advert being culturally relevant and authentic.”
Argos was another brand which put diversity on the top of its agenda with ‘Book of Dreams’ - an invigorating tale of a father and daughter playing the drums to a fictional, rapturous crowd.
But beyond these, you’d be in a hard placed to name others that made similar efforts in the run-up to Christmas in the UK. While the stage has been opened for minority groups, getting the part of the main protagonist isn’t so easy, as far as Christmas ads are concerned.
The leads of most hotly anticipated Christmas ads this year were all white actors, including John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s, M&S, Greenpeace, and Homebase, with people of other minorities were often dotted sporadically in the background.
Non-conducive storylines far, far away from reality
One problem has arguably been that this year’s ads have focused on eliciting feelings of nostalgia through fantasy stories. This year, both Sainsbury’s and John Lewis chose to go down this route.
To celebrate its 150-year history, Sainsbury's Christmas ad travels back in time to the supermarket's humble beginnings in 1869, with a film that depicts Dickensian London that's filled with myth, whisper and rumour.
John Lewis meanwhile told a heartwarming story of a little girl, Ava, and her friendship with an excitable young dragon that opens 'far, far, away' in a quaint, snow-engulfed town as it prepares for Christmas.
Both could be accused of lacking ethnic diversity.
"It’s probably reflective of the chaotic, divided and uncertain political times we are in,” suggests Lucy Jameson, co-founder of ad agency Uncommon, on this year's retreat to fantasy.
"[But] a fantasy or historical world would have to be a white world,” she added on the historical lack of minority groups in science fiction, fables, and fairytales.
However, Jameson argues that this doesn't need to be the case now. “I recently took my family to see CS Lewis’ classic, ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ at the Bridge Theatre and the stars – Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan - weren’t white. It didn’t feel tokenistic or like it was trying to make a point. It just was,” Jameson continues.
But Sky's senior head of multicultural business Debarshi Pandit doesn't agree, however, saying “there is no point in force-fitting something which doesn’t stand true.” As a consequence, he said these kind of storylines should therefore be avoided. “I'm not one for tokenism. The storyboard was not conducive, but you could have changed that to make sure everyone was included."
Is tokenism always bad?
Outside of the annual Christmas advertising extravaganza, major progress has been made in representation on screens. While the BAME community now accounts for 12% of the UK population, a recent survey from YouGov found that representation in advertising had more than doubled, with 37% of campaigns in the UK featuring black people.
“In some ways, we're probably over representing in a way now because everyone's trying to make up for it,” said Rania Robinson, chief exec of Quiet Storm. “I really applaud it. Whenever people look for long term change, it has to swing the other way before it balances out.
"It's a bit like positive discrimination and all-female shortlists. I'm fine with that.”
However, brands can fall foul if it's not backed up by the rest of the business. Back in 2017, Tesco was accused of “another lazy attempt at representation” when it presented three Muslim women and a child in its Christmas spot.
General criticism centred on why Muslims - who do not celebrate Christmas - were included in the campaign, something Tesco was quick to address by highlighting that many people do not see Christmas as an exclusively Christian holiday. Many religions outside of Christianity celebrate each year, viewing Christmas as a cultural festivity.
Instead, the crux of the issue for some was the fact that the advert, which sought to inspire people to choose Tesco for their turkeys, failed to actual cater to Muslims by not offering halal turkeys in stores.
“I don't care about tokenism, in a way, as long as it sustained,” said Robinson of why it's important brands think about their diverse customer base beyond the creative on screen.
The fact that brands which claim to lead on diversity are still making mistakes, shows there is still a lot of room to improve. “It makes you wonder - is the progress tokenistic?” Robinson asks. “Or is it genuinely that people recognise that we have a massive behavioural change? That is something that's an indicator of the future rather than just alright, it’s in the press, in trade. It's on everyone's mind, let's just kind of do something and then forget about it two years later.”
She says the biggest challenge is living beyond what is currently the Zeitgeist. Brands shouldn’t do things just of the moment and then forgets about it further down the line.
Iconic masterpieces of pop culture, but what about the rest?
But beyond the diversity make-up of Christmas adverts, questions have also been raised over whether brands should more marketing money into Eid, Ramadan and Hanukkah.
Brands could be missing a step, and Pundit advises that they and their advertising should “do a customer audit of their customer base to see whether their campaigns are reflecting the wider customer base that is actually buying products - particularly in ethnic catchment areas like Leicester and Slough."
Pandit explains that companies can’t speak to minority groups just by placing them in a Christmas ad and ticking the diversity box. “It’s a wider industry endemic,” Pundit says of the lack of adverts that celebrate other religious holidays. And while it's unfair to say that they are ignored entirely, efforts are usually kept to celebratory banners, promoting particular items - demonstrating a lack of understanding of how this consumer should be represented in a way that is sincere to them.
“Some of them do try, but they seem to think Asians only tend to buy 10kg bags of Tilda rice and 5kg of oil - on money transfer,” Pandit exclaims. “It’s that kind of cliched advertising that you get in print. It’s always sales-driven. Why don’t we start celebrating different versions of Christmas, across the year? It's a golden opportunity for clients.”