‘It’s like having sex and your mother walking in’: Patrick Collister on Christmas TVCs
Your typical TV commercial has tough competition at the best of times.
“Tweak the heartstrings, loosen the purse strings”
There you are, watching Downton Abbey and, horror of horrors, it looks like Isis, Lord Grantham’s Labrador, has to be put down. Suddenly we cut to black, and up pops your advert.
Brilliant storytelling is interrupted by 30 seconds of messaging. It’s a lovable pooch versus a yogurt. No contest.
At Christmas, it’s worse. The TV channels are all pumping out Christmas-themed programming and your ad now finds itself in the middle of Coronation Street.
Anna is trying to escape from jail – *cut to a seasonal message from a supermarket*
It’s like having sex with your girlfriend and your mother walks in – you’re left emotionally floundering.
But that hasn’t stopped a whole bunch of brands from having a go at wringing our hearts. Over the next few weeks, they will be up against storytellers such as Charles Dickens, JRR Tolkien, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Richard Curtis. Ouch.
I blame it all on John Lewis. The department store started this whole soppy Christmas thing and everyone else piled in because they could see it worked.
“Tweak the heartstrings, loosen the purse strings”.
The only problem is, not everyone is as good at tweaking as Adam&Eve DDB’s top creative people.
John Lewis’ ‘The Long Wait’ in 2011 is still one of my all-time favourite Christmas ads.
It captured the precise moment of giving, as the parcel exchanges hands, when there’s something in it for both parties.
Sales went up 9.6% thanks to a genuine human insight. ‘Buster the Boxer’ did the business too, with 27m views on YouTube. Sentiment with a smile, it seems, works every bit as well as sentiment with a tear.
Not that I’ve found too many attempts at Christmas with a chuckle in The Drum’s Creative Works section. One honourable exception is ESPN’s ‘NBA On Christmas Day’ – where superstar basketball players sit on Santa’s lap and share their wishes with him.
Apart from that, there was much heart-warming and/or tear-jerking, which is incredibly hard to pull off. And I’m not sure any of this season’s crop succeeds.
The one video that really did get through to me is from occasional YouTuber Rob Bliss.
He’s only made three videos in the last four years, but he’s had 34m views and this latest film is certain to rack up big numbers.
He uses Amazon Prime to deliver warm clothes to homeless people on the streets of New York.
You’ve got to be above-average tough and cynical not to be touched by that.
The reason this pips every Christmassy advert I’ve seen this year is because it doesn’t have actors. There isn’t a script. It’s not a play around a product’s values or characteristics, which requires suspension of disbelief.
It shows real people responding to a real situation. It places the viewer right there, on the street.
And there is a brand involved, though Rob promises that Amazon didn’t pay him a cent.
Maybe I’m being unfair – comparing apples with kumquats; adverts with a made-for YouTube video. But every day of the year, in every medium, advertising is at a similarly unfair disadvantage.
It’s there by default – no-one wants it or likes it.
Unless … unless it is astonishing: astonishingly funny, astonishingly moving, astonishingly different.
Personally, I wouldn’t even try. There is too much astonishing stuff happening already at this time of year.
But there’s another ‘unless’. Advertising can work miracles if its relevant. Sometimes, clients seem to get so obsessed with the brand they forget the flippin’ product.
So, I’d do what Ruse Wines have done and suggest my product has a role to play at Christmas, and offer a quid off as an incentive.
I hope they shift a lot of cases of the stuff.
Cheers. Merry Christmas.