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Christmas ads 2020: will brands stick with the sparkle or will Covid-19 dampen spirits?

TK Maxx's 'Lil' Goat' is a lesson on acknowledging hard year while raising a smile

From what we've seen so far, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to ads depicting Christmas in the time of a global pandemic. As the festive showdown gets underway, The Drum explores the approach taken by brands so far to try gauge what we can expect from the rest of 2020’s Christmas ads. Will advertisers deliver a well-needed dose of sparkle, or will Covid-19 be the Grinch that stole Christmas ads?

Not to sound all ‘bah humbug’, but as Covid-19 continues to ruin the best-laid plans of 2020, Christmas this year is going to be tough.

As tradition dictates, this is the time of year when brands begin to roll out their Christmas ad spectaculars. Not only are they vital for business, but research conducted by Kantar last year found advertising plays a key role in getting people in the festive mood, and in these times of coronavirus, rarely has there been a greater need to lift the public's spirit. According to research by video advertising companies Unruly and Tremor Video about what kind of tone ads should strike this year, consumers are crying out for advertisers to provide some much-needed festive cheer.

But for marketers and creatives having to negotiate an array of logistical and budgetary headaches and devise relatable Christmas ads while being uncertain as to what Christmas will even look like this year, that challenge is a formidable one.

How have they spent the year planning?

The general rule of Christmas advertising is advertisers typically work a year in advance, and the world is a very different place since creatives first put pen to paper. So how do you start planning when the road ahead is so unclear?

"There’s not really a guidebook or a blanket approach for how to plan for this level of uncertainty," says Matt Davis, strategist at Rapp UK. "The way that we have focused is to make sure we are imbuing our creative with positivity no matter what the reality." He adds that may mean shying away from ideas that would show people together, but not making this a "Covid-19 Christmas".

It was in the midst of the first wave when Argos' senior campaign manager, Rob Quartermain, had to start thinking about the company's Christmas spot. "I wrote the brief back in May, and one clear thing I distinctly remember was thinking what on earth we're going to talk about at Christmas. We figured togetherness and family would be important this year which I don't think is a massive insight or rocket science."

Big bucks or tightened purse strings?

Each year, big brands like John Lewis and Amazon can be relied upon to dig deep into their budgets and bring out the big bucks to spend on their blockbusters, as they battle to win the Christmas ad showdown.

But according to Warc and the Advertising Association, they might be tightening their purse strings this year. UK advertisers are forecast to spend £724m less than last year, which is a 10.5% fall. This reflects a general trend of 2020, with Covid-19 leading brands to be more cautious with their spending, and with a recession looming, do brands have the luxury to go as big this time around?

"It's inevitable that the value equation will be questionable," says Ben Mooge, chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe UK. "We live in a world where everything is less certain than it was. Can we target this for less? Can we make this for less?"

Agreeing, Kantar's head of creative excellence, UK Lynne Deason, acknowledges brands will spend less, but says that doesn't mean they can't still pack a punch. "A decline in media investment doesn’t have to lead to a decline in impact," he argues. "The smart money will be on those brands who invest in effective advertising, that works across connection points."

For the likes of John Lewis, which yesterday (4 November) announced it was cutting hundreds of jobs, being seen to splurge millions on its Christmas ad, no matter how anticipated, could appear distasteful. "Brands may err on the side of caution with production budgets, so as not to look too flashy when a large proportion of their consumers are struggling and the brand is sending its staff out on furlough," says Rapp's Davis.

Magical distraction or realistic depiction?

The campaigns released so far have been a mixed bag of attempting to distract customers from the pandemic, and directly addressing the elephant in the room. Amazon has been widely commended for sensitively approaching the topic in a way that doesn't feel downbeat and exhausting.

So too have TK Maxx and Asda. "Asda’s Christmas ad acknowledges that Christmas isn’t going to be the same this year, showing a small immediate family ‘making the most of it’" says Sue Mullen, managing director at Story UK, a Mission group agency.

"Whether directly, like the Amazon ad, or indirectly as with TK Maxx, brands are talking about the impact this year has had," says Publicis' Mooge. "If you’re telling a story about, or set in December 2020, it’s inevitable. Even if your story is wilfully ignoring it, the act of ignoring it is still an acknowledgement of the situation."

Argos on the other hand decided to swerve the topic altogether and Quartermain says doing anything else was never an option. “The brand is unashamedly about possibilities and dreams. We're quite an upbeat brand - we felt that our role this Christmas would be one of offering some escapism, and a little dose of nostalgia and see Christmas through the world of children, rather than overtly commenting on what we know is a really hard and difficult year. So hopefully we strike the right balance.”

According to Engine Creative's chief strategy officer, Gen Kobayashi: "Advertising is at its best is when it gives people a positive moment of escape, especially in times of crisis."

He references a longitudinal study from the start of lockdown (between March and May) which found an upward trend of 30% of people asking for brands to make 'funny' ads over 'sentimental' ones. "This tells us that when times are difficult, people look for a positive escape," he argues. "I really hope brands do what they do best this Christmas, which is create entertainment that gives people an outlet, not a mirror that reflects the uncertainty and difficulties we’re all facing at the end of a bleak year of Covid-19."

Are depictions of big family gatherings a big no-no?

The outbreak has ingrained itself on our behaviours, so much so that the incongruent depiction of people not social distancing in ads is enough to unsettle the soundest mind. With most of the western world still being advised to stay clear of gatherings, and advertisers having no idea whether family Christmases will be allowed or not at the time of shooting, how have brands approached the issue of family get-togethers this year?

"One of the challenges we had was how to navigate being tonally appropriate and within guidelines," explains Argos' Quartermain. "The rule of six was actually introduced a week before we shot the ad. But we were always aware that we needed to present a story in a way that wouldn't overtly highlight a big family gathering."

Which is why Argos went down the track of 'magic', which it used as a vehicle to talk about dreams coming true, depicting young magicians seeing their extended family in a dreamlike theatre setting.

"Expect a lot of Zooms," says Rapp's Davis. "We are likely to see brands have multiple iterations of Christmas gatherings ready to go depending on the Christmas situation, but most will err on the side of caution showing how Christmas can come to life when everyone has to stay in their homes. This will no doubt be a Christmas like no other."

But is this what people want to see? "Everyone’s been sick of the Zoom-ification of life and its portrayal in ads since about May," says Kantar's Deason. "Nobody wants to see a socially distanced gathering – unless it done with genuine humour. We don’t want the harsh reality shoving down our throats, nor do we want to be reminded of the things we most want but can’t have. To be together in whatever shape, form or place suits us most."

Big glitzy TV or targeted digital?

While TV advertising vs digital has been a bone of industry contention over the past few years, major brands have still reliably turned to TV for their big Christmas advertising drives. But with reduced budgets, will that still be the case this year?

"Glitzy or not, while there have certainly been positive strides made in marketers appreciating the transformative power of the big emotive long-form spot, any brand that’s not smashing it in terms of their digital campaign, digital content and e-commerce strategy and website UX is going to be in real trouble," argues Kantar's Deason.

Publicis' Mooge agrees. "The battle for Christmas ads is won and lost on social media and so I'd argue that the best of the big glitzy TV ads in recent years have always been targeted and digital," he contends.

He argues that adding that to the increase in teasers and trailers that live online as extra content and entertainment, and the need to demonstrate effectiveness of advertising spend against sales during the festive period, advertisers would be mad to not look at how to target messages to the right people.

All in all, Christmas 2020 looks to be one for the history books. There's no doubt that brands will be less generous with their ad spend, but that doesn't mean consumers should expect no gifts at all.

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