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Marketing B2B Marketing Christmas

The M&S Christmas ad backlash shows why marketers need to stand up for humor


By Gordon Young | Editor-in-Chief

November 7, 2023 | 7 min read

The Drum’s founder, Gordon Young, explains why he thinks adland has lost its sense of humor, pointing to the backlash against a campaign he likes from UK retailer Marks and Spencer.


I’m with David Felton, who wrote a blog for The Drum saying he loved the new Marks and Spencer Christmas ad. In a sea of sanctimonious sentimentalism, its honest realism has made it the stand UK Christmas commercial so far, despite being embroiled in a social media storm.

It features an all-star cast of Hannah Waddingham, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Tan France and Zawe Ashton, who acknowledge a traditional Christmas is not what it’s cracked up to be. Decorations are naff, board games boring, card writing pointless and charades a charade. So rather than seeking Dickensian perfection, enjoy the imperfection. My sentiment exactly.

It strikes a chord with me on another level. The ad is good fun - if not quite Laugh out loud funny. And fun is something the industry has been turning its back on in recent years.

Maaike Kessels, in another blog on The Drum, made a similar point and added objective analysis to the assertion. She concluded the ad industry has, in recent years, lost its sense of humor.

Purpose - the humor killer

Purpose marketing is to blame. In a trend that really gathered momentum in 2009, brands set out to reflect big global challenges such as climate change, diversity and poverty. Not exactly laughing matters.

For example, in The Drum’s 2022 ranking of the 'World’s Best Ads of All Time’, only two humorous ads made the top 10. From the mid-naughties, Old Spice’s ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ and Skittles ‘Touch the Rainbow’.

Ad Land is now a serious business. Despite this, according to Oracle, 91% of people prefer brands to be funny. Meanwhile, 72% would choose a brand that uses humor over the competition.

However, Marks and Spencer’s recent travails offer a stark reminder of why few want to risk making a stand for stand-up. To support its TV ad, the retailer published a single post that featured some paper Christmas hats being put in a fire; the best place for them in my view. But the paper hats happened to be red, green and silver. This, as keyboard warriors pointed out, was not only the traditional colors of Christmas but the components of a Palestinian flag.

This, to them, was clearly an oblique reference to the horrors going on in the Middle East. Even prestigious news wires mentioned how it primary founder, Michael Marks, has Jewish roots. The fact that the picture was taken months before the conflict was no defense, apparently.

Those who claimed they were traumatized could only do one thing. Share the image as widely as possible, even after it was taken down by M&S, to ensure that more were equally 'traumatized’.

The row was as synthetic as the average artificial Christmas tree. But it is also the sort of storm that offers another explanation why so many CMOs have lost their sense of fun. And that can be summed up as a fear of putting a foot wrong.

But fortune favors the brave. And that is why humor is making a comeback against the odds. More marketers recognize that In a world full of heavy news people will reward brands that offer light relief.

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The Marks and Spencer’s commercial is just part of a trend that is emerging across the marketing industry. Even in the traditionally staid world of B2B, some brands are starting to take themselves less seriously. For example, at The Drum’s B2B Worldfest, delegates were treated to case histories from State Street Global Advisers on how they created a mad-cap golf tournament to sell mid-cap financial products.

Meanwhile, Kraft-Heinz explained how it influenced consumers to pressure restaurants into stocking its ketchup; RG Roland, the print manufacturer, spoke about a ’50 Shades of Ginger’ campaign, and LinkedIn revealed ads based on the insight that in this digital era, there are a lot of mums out there who have no idea what their offspring do for a living.

The key driver for this more human approach is the growing recognition that all marketers - including those in B2B - are really in P2P, people to people. And humans buy into emotion - and making them laugh is one of the most powerful emotional responses you can hope for.

Of course, purpose and fun are not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can look at State Street again for evidence of that. There are few stunts as famous as their Fearless Girl installation. As well as a reminder that girls have power, it also exuded a sense of joyous dare and do. And I am not talking bull.

So, let’s hope Marks and Spencer sticks with the humor. If it does, it’ll get three cheers from me for bringing much-needed fun into both Christmas and the marketing industry.

Marketing B2B Marketing Christmas

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