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Marketing Brand Purpose Christmas

M&S Christmas ad gets Gumtree CMO all fired up... for its sheer wastefulness


By Hannah Rouch | CMO

November 2, 2023 | 8 min read

Responding to M&S’s bombastic Christmas ad, Hannah Rouch, CMO at Gumtree, wonders if marketers should step up and think just a little bit more sustainably at Christmas.

Actor Hannah Waddingham in the 2023 M&S Christmas advert

/ M&S

The latest M&S ad shows Christmas cards being burnt, paper hats being shredded, and toys being thrown away. It sure is fun, but rather than capturing the essence of ‘ThisMas’ and doing Christmas your way (which I wholeheartedly agree with), the waste at the heart of the film was glaringly apparent.

Cards that could be recycled or resold, paper hats that could be repurposed, and toys that another child could love are all discarded. Perhaps that doesn’t make as fun an ad - but we have always to consider what our campaigns say.

Amid the acute climate and cost of living crisis, as marketers, shouldn’t we be reading the room a little more? Gumtree research showed us that three in five [61%] are concerned about the impact of frivolous shopping this festive season. Consumers care but, like us marketeers, are swept up in the magic of Christmas.

Rather than festive joy, many consumers will simply feel pressure at Christmas. Pressure to build memories, make the perfect dinner, get the right presents, attend every party, ensure school fairs are stocked… the lists can be endless. For marketers, Christmas can mean pressure like no other time. Expectation is high, and the need for results is real. But under this strain, are we at risk of losing sight of the bigger picture and the role marketing can and should play in challenging consumer habits? As we enter the golden quarter for retailers and small businesses, we are once again in danger of putting profits over the planet and ignoring the environmental crisis we are in. The natural friction between consumption and sustainability at Christmas is real for marketers. But unless we use our platforms to drive change and acknowledge the climate situation we are in, it will be too late.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation research identified that 45% of climate goals can only be met by tackling consumption. Waste is the real enemy this Christmas, and marketers and brands have a responsibility to shift consumer behavior. Why? Shockingly, our own research found over a third [37%] of people will send replaced items to landfill this Christmas without considering passing it on or selling second-hand. Embracing a circular economy needs to be ingrained more in our festive thinking.

It’s simple: we must change our consumption habits before it is too late. Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first to put on a Christmas rom-com and playlist, to tune into the Christmas ads and start a wish list. I love nothing more than carefully planning out gifts for friends and family. I over-cater, over-consume and get as sucked into the frenzy of the festive period as anyone. Marketing works… who would have thought? But as a mum to a six-year-old who is increasingly asking questions about how we can save the planet, I feel a sense of responsibility at this time of year to highlight the rapidly growing problem of waste and mass consumption. The notion of “well, it’s just a little purchase here and there…” collectively adds up very quickly. Our 2021 Freedom of Information report identified that 30,000 tonnes of household items were sent to landfill in England between 2019-2021. Products consumers may have been pressured to buy in flash sales, Black Friday deals, along with the old items, are simply discarded and sent to landfills.

Our research also found 28% of people believe overconsumption is one of the biggest causes of environmental and climate issues. Circularity and second-hand have a very real role to play during this time. But we are hindered by stigma and guilt, the notion that preloved is not quite good enough. Or at least, perhaps at other times of the year, but certainly not at Christmas when things apparently need to be shiny, glossy and new. For example, the holy grail of the perfect Christmas outfit. Two in five people under 35 feel constant pressure from brands to ‘buy new,’ but how many of us are guilty of allowing that sequined outfit to languish at the back of our wardrobes?

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As a parent, I certainly feel the pressure to buy my child the latest toys as she flicks through the Christmas catalogs, carefully turning down the pages to all the new items on her wish list. But won’t she thank me in the future for buying her a planet-friendly purchase and opting for at least some second-hand items this year? I am in a privileged position where I can raise awareness of mass and fast consumption through the work I do at Gumtree. Daily, we try to shift consumer behavior and show that a circular economy is more than possible.

However, tackling waste and overconsumption will take a collective effort. As a marketing industry, how do we work together to drive change for good and use our platforms for positive change? Marketers should shoulder some responsibility regarding the delicate balance of sales against sustainability - at Christmas and throughout the year.

It is our role to promote better consumption, not more consumption. To ask consumers to pause and think why before they buy. We know consumers care about making more sustainable choices, but the cost of living crisis has forced many to buy fast and cheap. Shouldn’t we make it easier for our customers to participate in sustainability? Yes, ‘ThisMas’ should alleviate the pressure to be perfect. But not at the expense of our planet.

Editor’s note: M&S has issued an apology and a new edit of the ad after Twitter users accused it of burning Palestinian colors - which, one could argue, are also festive colors. You can read about that here.

Marketing Brand Purpose Christmas

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