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Reality or escapism? Addressing the C-word in this year's Christmas ads

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective.

Advertisers are facing a big dilemma this festive season: acknowledge the reality of 2020's Covid Christmas, or whisk viewers off to a pandemic-free alternative universe? To figure out how to deal with the other C-word, we asked strategist and Harbour partner Kevin Chesters to dive into this year's Christmas creative and tell us who did it best...

Merry Christmas everybody. A bit like policemen getting younger or the fireworks starting in August, it does seem that the Christmas ad season starts a little earlier every year. Even a year like this one.

There seems to be two very clear approaches when it comes to Christmas ads this year – to Covid or not to Covid? It’s a case of “how do we deal with the C-word?”

Do we take the virus and its inevitable impact on our family festivities head on and reference the (baby) bejesus out of it? Or do we simply plough on regardless and pretend that a virus-shaped Grinch in 2020 won’t be stealing the more ‘normal’ aspects of our traditional traditions?

The majority of ads from the usual suspects seem to fall acutely into one camp or the other. Some have dived headlong into the Zoom-filled, socially distanced, technology enhanced (or limiting) Christmas that will be inevitable (whatever “Boris” and his assembled average acolytes might be trying to convince us). The rest have glossed over the effects of the pandemic of our 2020 Noel and gone down the route of Christmas past. I am not going to make any sort of judgement as to which I think is the right way to go. OK, I am. But not yet.

There has been an absolute deluge of research in Q4 as to what should be the way to go - and as usual the results are entirely contradictory! Some of the data seems to suggest that people want to see blockbusters and a big dollop of Christmas normal as an antidote to 2020 mope. Other research seems to point to consumers wanting brands to be more realistic and reflective of the times and so acknowledging the Covid context for Christmas. Like all research I think you have to treat it like fireworks – all very lovely but unhelpful (or potentially seriously fatal) if you put it in the wrong hands. I have a clear POV on what I think is best for people but again I’ll come to that later.

I have to confess that I was dreading the Christmas ad postbag. I was convinced that there would be a stocking full of “now more than ever” and a big pile of “in these unprecedented times” under my Christmas advertising tree. But I have, not for the first time in my life, been proved very (very) wrong. I happen to think that this year’s crop of Christmas advertising is, collectively, the strongest for some years. Perhaps my old mate, Joe Staples, was right when he wrote for Chrysler a few years back “the hottest fires forge the strongest steel”.

I really don’t want to come across like old Mr Grace in ‘Are you being Served’ (one for the millennials there) when he used to say “You’ve all done very well” - but I would start any discussion about 2020 Christmas work by saying that anyone who gets anything out in 2020 needs a massive pat on the back. It’s been a cowpat of a year, properly shit. We’ve all had to deal with a ridiculous lot of crap – personal and professional. Everyone, client and agency, has had to adapt to a mad way of working but it’s affected production people probably more than anyone. So, I think some of the more blockbustery work – Amazon being a good example – deserves some proper plaudits.

So I’m not going to criticise anyone (despite it being a bit tempting in some cases) – I think just getting work out there at Christmas 2020 is a triumph of our industry’s adaptability, positivity, grit and ingenuity. Everyone have a mince pie – YOU’VE ALL DONE VERY WELL.

But what’s the best approach? Escapism or Reality? Which C-word leads to the best work?

Science will say that escapism is good for us. There is a Santa’s sack full of research to show the positive impacts of escapism on our overall health. A peer reviewed study in Turkey in 2014 showed that distraction and escapism can even have incredible impacts on our response to physical pain and recovery. But by far and away the most work in this area has been done in the field of the positive impact of escapism on our mental health and wellbeing. We don’t need reminding that many aspects of 2020 have been a bit rubbish – I think we’ve all noticed. So, is it best that we have a lovely, snow-topped, figgie-pudding-soaked journey in Christmas normality via our ads?

No Christmas ad discussion is credible without starting – and probably ending – with John Lewis. Now, full disclosure here, John Lewis is a much valued and very well-liked client of ours at Harbour. But I’m going to leave that to one side. Bevo and Brim have simply served us up something great – as per. There’s a healthy dose of the Spiderverse about the production (and what’s not to like about that?). The sentiment is great, the message is necessary and the execution is everything you’d expect from adam&eveDDB. [Read the story of its making here.]

John Lewis has written its own rules and established its own universe for judging its work at Christmas. Its latest ad would be great any year, but this year I think it’s a triumph. And I also think you can’t judge John Lewis at Christmas against anyone other than John Lewis. But in terms of the escapist camp, I think this one is up there. Only beaten by…

McDonald's. This ad is lovely. It’s made me cry four (FOUR) times. There is so much to like about this little journey into distraction from reality. For starters (like a lot of work this year) it avoids the more annoying parts of Covid production impact by going down the animation route. It tells a wonderful human story, and like so many McDpnald's ads from the last 20 years it does it with skill, charm, patience and pathos. This is my second favourite ad on the 2020 Christmas sleigh. Honourable mention for me in escapism camp also goes to the brilliant Burberry film which just made my heart sing.

So, who did reality well? Quite a few actually. But only a few really nailed it. Zalando took it head on ‘We will hug again” and I think did it well. Amazon really embraced it and I think just for production ambition alone I’d give it an extra satsuma in itsChristmas ad stocking. The story is also well told and I think it is charming without ever being too heavy-handedly mawkish. Top stuff from Lucky Generals.

But who do I think deserves the star on top of the Christmas ad tree? Well, I happen to think that bravery should always get rewarded. This is why I am probably leaning towards people acknowledging the C-word rather than avoiding it. And I think one retailer absolutely walked the fine line between reality & escapism with the skill of Santa’s elf of the month.

It’s not easy to be funny when it comes to a pandemic. It would be very easy to offend or miss the mark. So with that said, Tesco has absolutely nailed it. A lovely insight to start with – indulge the planner in me – that in a year where it’s all been a bit of a challenge then we shouldn’t have a naughty list. A film full of references to the year – home schooling, loo roll hoarding, self-haircuts, travel bans and Captain Tom – but done with wit and great writing. I also want to call out whoever was in charge of the casting on this – you absolutely smashed it.

This made me laugh, and it made me feel a bit wistful too. It does both reality and escapism, it does Covid and Christmas. I am actually in awe of how carefully this campaign treads the line between comedy and Covid. The print is also wondrous too – “These are unprecedented pies” – so I’m definitely giving Tesco an extra big dollop of congratulatory brandy butter for its advertising pudding. All that AND Britney????!!! My eggnog cup runneth over.

There’s a line in Game of Thrones that came back to me when I was thinking about just how skilfully Tesco has done this. Bran asks his dad "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?" and his dad replies "That is the only time a man can be brave". It would be really easy for advertisers to dial it back this Christmas. No one would blame anyone if they didn’t embrace or acknowledge the hardest bits of 2020. Yet Tesco has embraced them without wallowing in them and referenced them without seeming to underplay them. Tesco has even joked about them with deft balance.

I was asked by The Drum for my opinion on what I thought was the best approach – reality or escapism? Covid or Christmas? Like a fat bloke at a buffet, an indecisive tombola winner or a spoilt kid with a box of Black Magic, I’m going to say that the answer is both. You can have it all. Be brave enough to acknowledge what we’ve been through but talented enough to navigate through it without layering it on with a trowel.

I hope everyone has a nice Christmas no matter where or how they celebrate it. God knows we’ve all deserved it after the last six months. And the Christmas ad postbag showed me that we’re still an industry full of smart, skilled, adaptable and resilient folks. And that bodes really well for recovery in 2021 and hopefully slightly less “unprecedented times”. I’m looking forward to hopefully the most boring year of my life!