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Creative Christmas Diversity & Inclusion

Is Christmas ad season still all it’s cracke(r)d up to be?


By Nina Etienne, Global VP marketing

November 8, 2023 | 8 min read

Nina Etienne wonders if the Christmas ad onslaught still works?

Asad Buble

/ Havas

The Christmas ad season is on us once again. From the very first day of November (because one has to make those months of effort and marketing £ count), advertisers around the world unite in dusting off their social media accounts and sharing their latest attempt to win a Cannes Lion, Yellow pencil or Drum award to make consumers around the world feel something.

There’s no other calendar moment quite like it.

For the advertising industry, it’s their “big reveal” moment, where months of hard graft and investment are displayed to the world via a TV commercial that has the production quality of Games of Thrones team, the buzz of a Queer Guy makeover, the intrigue of a Star’s In Their Eyes celebrity impersonation, the scripted drama of a Bachelor World rose ceremony and the investment levels of a Superbowl 20” spot.

The big players (household retail names and global brands) can and do spend upwards of £30m, contributing to the overall c. £8bn invested annually in advertising in the UK during this festive period. Media buyers rejoice.

While seasonal spend is a long trend in the industry, this proliferation of high-budget Christmas mini-movies is really a phenomenon of the last 10-15 years, spearheaded by THAT John Lewis ad. We’re told that the nation is waiting with baited breath each year for the latest animated animal, celebrity partnership, and inanimate object brought to life, or - my personal favorite - the annually reinvented sentimental story of a young child experiencing festive spirit in spite of their circumstances, set to the backdrop of a classic song made new by being performed acoustically by the singer of the day.

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And every year brands deliver against this tried-and-tested formula. This year - to date - we have:

  • Aldi’s 'Kevin and the Christmas factory'

  • Asda’s collaboration with Micahel Buble

  • Coke’s 2023 Santa

  • M&S’s celebrity-endorsed 'I won’t do that' Meatloaf inspired (apparently 'controversial') anti-Christmas attempt

  • Morrisons's singing oven glove

  • and more on their way…

  • Christmas 2023: watch all of the latest ads

All as expected. Beautiful pieces of work making us want to laugh, cry and hug our families. All rather predictable. All - dare I say it - formulaic. I, for one, am starting to crave the unexpected, the true creativity of inverting the status quo or developing a new genre.

But does this tried and tested formula continue to work with its intended audience?

For the most part, advertising has two core and complementary objectives: long-term brand building and driving short-term sales. So in the case of Christmas ads, success should be measured in terms of how successful they are, on the one hand, at being seen and remembered by consumers driving brand awareness/familiarity (whichever KPI you prefer) and, on the other, prompting footfall and sales in digital and physical stores.

I haven’t seen a comprehensive analysis across a suite of Christmas ads so I’ll have to use the definitely not statistically significant - and likely cynical - illustration that utilizes my dear old mum, a woman in her 70s living in the north of England. Now my mum likes the Christmas ads - they make her laugh and sometimes make her cry - and she likes that one with the oven glove because she needs a new oven glove. However, she can’t remember which retailer did which advert (“they’re all a bit the same, aren’t they love”) and she’ll continue to shop in Sainsbury’s (“that’s closer and has some good deals”).

In this example, it’s a fail on both long-term and short-term goals here.

However, maybe the sample size of my mum is too biased. Colleagues at Kantar, System One and other marketing monitoring agencies tell us it remains worth it, that these ads spark conversation, and that a good ad will cut through the noise. Agencies tell us that if you’re not there, your absence will be noticed, negatively impacting brand health and perception. CMOs tell us that it’s a unique moment where brands can remind their customers what makes them distinctive, keeping your brand top of mind.

Yet a contrasting narrative exists, echoing the example of my mum. Many retail analysts out there argue that the commercial benefits of Christmas ads remain unproven and that by the time we’ve thrown away this year’s Christmas wrapping paper, all the ads have blurred into each other. That ironically, in what is extolled as the most creative moment of the advertising calendar, the wholesale adoption of brands and their agencies of the Christmas ad “playbook” has meant every ad is rendered the same.

Are these adverts then really achieving what they are set out to do with the end consumer or has this Christmas obsession with the development of beautiful, emotive pieces of advertising art become more about the industry patting itself on the back and justifying its existence?

And this year, with all the economic and political unrest, with loneliness and the cost of living at an all-time high, will the nation come together through a renewed festive spirit orchestrated by these “feel good” ads, or will we start to question whether this overwhelming investment in commercialism - at such a time in the world - does actually makes us feel good.

The jury is out. But the ads will keep on coming.

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