Marketers were using Christmas to sell things before the John Lewis ad came along, and they will continue to long after we’ve forgotten the Keane covers and cute dragons.
The Drum Network caught up with some of its members to find out who their true stars and unsung heroes of Christmas are, including the festive marketing campaigns that impressed throughout time.
The year is almost out, so sit back with a cuppa and a box of chocolates of your choosing and enjoy this dive into campaigns of Christmas past.
Rick Lamb, managing director, UK at Jellyfish
We did a snap survey before a recent team meeting, and the first viewing of the Coca Cola truck ad was judged to herald the official start of Christmas. But before that, and the current generation of tearjerkers, there are two ads that made a lasting impression on me. It turns out both debuted in 1992, when I was but a child.
The first is the Yellow Pages ad, Mistletoe, where a small boy needs a step up to kiss a taller girl. It’s such an iconic ad that literally couldn’t be made today as you can’t get any more height from standing on Google. Legend has it the boy was Robbie Williams, but as he was 18 at the time and already two years into Take That it seems unlikely.
The other ad, which I vividly recall and still occasionally imitate the limited dialogue from, was for Quality Street. It was the first time they used Magic Moments as a theme tune, and involved another small boy (I must have really identified with these characters) giving a box to what the tabloids would still call a 'lollipop lady'.
Which is not to say that current ads don’t make an impression on me, or that as a father to two small daughters I wasn’t moved to actual tears by a big screen viewing of this year’s McDonald’s advert with the blue monster. At least I had the anonymity of the cinema so nobody knows about it.
Eloise Pates, copywriter at Accord Marketing
"If the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that we’re contradictory creatures by nature; sometimes we want to dwell on our hardships and other times we want to pretend they don’t exist. A Christmas ad, a gift from a brand, a narrative on the nation’s spirit, ideally can nurture both these headspaces or take us somewhere else. The best ads are ones that add a dash of realism, a sprinkle of wit, but, above all, a genuine awareness of exactly what the storytellers are standing for.
Take ‘A Christmas Carrot’ by Aldi in 2021. A Dickensian spoof, sound-tracked by The Pogues, with enough puns to fill a couple of punnets and the return of our beloved Kevin the Carrot. Oh, and Marcus Rashford making a cameo as a radish? Go on then! It’s one giant Dad joke because that’s what a hearty budget supermarket should represent. It’s clever and kind and shows us that Aldi are dedicated to the cause in a heartfelt and wonderful way. In 2021, the German-owned giant is donating ten million meals to lower-income families in the UK.
Capturing the feeling at Christmas is one thing - but doing it honestly is another. Sometimes all it takes for a brand to find that magic, is a trip outside of the box and a look in the mirror to remember who they are and what they mean to people. The result, ideally, is a minute-or-so piece of joy that has us smiling for all the right reasons."
Owen Rowbotham, client partner at Cult
"The greatest tale of festive marketing goes back to December 2014, when GAME set out to reach as many gamers as possible on a not-so-big budget. Their solution was genius - a free-to-download 265 megabit Christmas Shopping Simulator. This utterly whimsical GOAT Simulator replica had everything gamers wanted; humor, a lack of basic physics, and chaos. Gamers played it in their 100,000s, including YouTube gaming sensation PewDiePie. Gaming audiences are currently at an all time high with 82 million logging onto gaming platform Steam last Christmas Day alone, proving that GAME’s Shopping Simulator wasn’t just a tale of it’s time. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for branded gamification in 2022 as we’re on the horizon of the metaverse. Take GAME itself, now owned by Frasers Group, and imagine the possibilities of a gamified partnership with its sister brand Flannels. Suddenly, the next generation of Christmas Shopping Simulator gamers could purchase and dress their avatar in a digital Flannels winter edit."
Oliver Fynn-Brand, copywriter at Optimizon
"We noticed that Lawrence Chaney, winner of Ru Paul's TV hit, Drag Race, has been appointed Irn Bru ambassador. We absolutely love this!
Those living north of the border will be familiar with the Irn Bru reimagination of Raymond Briggs' classic 1978 Snowman book. The ad first aired in 2006, has now become part of Scottish culture at Christmas. Scots know Christmas is around the corner when the Irn Bru Christmas ad has its first airing of the year!
Lawrence Chaney's 'Fairy God Maw' is an entirely different direction for the brand, and is bound to reach out to a whole new audience. Social media users can post festive wishes with the hashtag #BibbidyBobbidyBRU for a chance to win Irn Bru prizes. It looks like the social media engagement is already strong.
Our Xmas wish is that Irn Bru's Fairy God Maw is also around for at least 15 years."
Danny Bluestone, founder and CEO at Cyber-Duck
"Christmas is meant to be about giving the audience something, more than receiving or pushing a product. And the secret to that and any great B2B or B2C Christmas marketing campaign is being generous, personal, and interactive.
The standout festive campaign that achieves this, must be www.elfyourself.com. Launched in 2006 as a five week Christmas branded microsite to liven up rather stodgy retail supplies retailer, OfficeMax, Elf Yourself let people paste pictures of their faces onto dancing elves, add a personal voice greeting, and send it to friends.
Fifteen years later, over two billion elves have been created; there are Apple and Android apps, and even non-fungible token (NFT) functionality to design your own elf design. And because the experience is so good, you barely notice the monetized ad banner lurking at the bottom of the web page…
In a world where many people like me, consume most of their entertainment on advert-free platforms like Netflix, Christmas marketing must go beyond often emotionally manipulative ads. In 2014, Cyber-Duck created an interactive dancing Santa at our head office, activated by Twitter hashtag, in 2017 we created a B2B site https://howgdprstolechristmas.com full of useful free resources to help organizations facing a raft of new privacy law. Yes, both showed off what our digital agency was capable of, but they were more about giving to the audience than about us. Something for marketers to always keep in mind at Christmas."