Should brands hold back on the blockbuster Christmas ad?

Is 2020 the right year to spend big?

John Lewis & Partners: has permanently closed some stores
John Lewis & Partners: has permanently closed some stores

Be it Coca-Cola's "Holidays are coming" or the much-anticipated John Lewis & Partners Christmas film, much of the nation views their favourite ad as a marker for the start of the festive period. Indeed, the big Christmas ads can bring a smile (or a tear) to even the most Scrooge-like among us as the year draws to a close.

But, as we all know, 2020 isn't just any year. It has been one of the toughest for some time in more ways than one and retailers, which are normally the biggest Christmas advertisers, have been feeling the pinch too.

Only this week, Marks & Spencer revealed it is to cut 7,000 jobs over the next three months. And with John Lewis deciding not to reopen some of its stores, more people will be let go from that business.

What's more, a recent poll from Truman Films, which specialises in unscripted hidden-camera work, found that 63% of the 2,000 people surveyed think that brands should not create a big Christmas TV film.

Festive advertising can offer light relief to a weary nation and, if effective, provide a boost to businesses. But to people who have lost their jobs or are facing a myriad of other challenges, companies splashing out on a big-budget campaign might leave them cold.

So, should brands hold back on the blockbuster Christmas ad this year?

Vicki Maguire

Chief creative officer, Havas London

I get it. If someone had stopped me in the street (or over Zoom nowadays) to ask me about Christmas advertising… in July. During a global pandemic. And a recession. I'd have said the same.

But come November, we'll probably be in our third lockdown. We'll have finished Netflix and want to throw a Lego brick at the Disney channel.

God, I'll be missing the John Lewis drop. I'll even miss Kevin the fucking carrot. Sure, we won't spend as much or gift as much, and hand sanitiser will cost as much as Chanel, but we'll still want those Christmassy feels.

So let's do what most of the country will be doing this December. Let's regift. In the same way we're more than happy to rewatch It's a Wonderful Life or Elf, let's roll out Monty, Buster, Paddington, "The bear and the hare" on a loop. A 90-second hit of Crimbo spirit during the Chris Whitty Christmas special.

Simon Gregory

Chief strategy officer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

'Course not – it's Christmas!

But this year, among the dancing carrots and flaming puds, perhaps there's a chance to sprinkle some festive generosity too. As the nation breathes out through its protective mask at the end of a ridiculous year, think about what you could give back.

Make that never-ending purpose tangible and purposeful; help families make the most of whatever Christmas looks like for them; lend a little support to the communities they live in; entertain and raise festive spirits with gusto (no Quality Street price drops squeezed into the endframe, please).

If this northern misanthrope can get excited for Christmas, anyone can.

George Floyd

Head of sales, Academy Films

Reality TV-style company commissions self-serving ad poll. Poll finds that more people want reality TV-style advertising.

If we learned anything in 2016, it’s that polls have no currency and aren’t worth the paper the leading questions are printed on.

I haven’t had the benefit of gearing any survey data, but my simple answer is no – brands should not "hold back" on blockbuster ads. Nor should they necessarily set out to spank their annual budget in one campaign.

The answer can be found on page one of the textbook – make engaging work that stands out. It might require one or two hidden cameras, or one or two million pounds. What it definitely should not require is a Zoom call, deserted streets and a bunch of people wearing face masks (although Christmas-themed face masks are surely going to be hot this winter). People love escapism. They need it, especially in times of hardship and, of course, at Christmas.

Enyi Nwosu

Chief strategy officer, UM London

The survey results are not surprising. We have all had to reappraise our values in 2020. We now understand the true definition of a key worker. During the peak of the UK pandemic, a number of retail and FMCG brands in particular got their communications tonally right. Thanking real people and sending support to communities who are suffering.

This week, we have seen the retail sector overtake aviation as the hardest hit in terms of job losses, which have been reported as a direct result of Covid-19.

There is so much empirical evidence which supports brands continuing to spend during difficult times and they play a critical role in helping economies to recover. They should invest during the Christmas period and the communications can still entertain. We look forward to it and need it more than ever.

However, against a backdrop of increasing job losses and cities going in and out of lockdown, fantasy, other-world-type advertising will appear tone-deaf. The message should be real, human and of course empathetic.

Aoife McGuinness

Neuroscience consultant, HeyHuman

Humans tend to be poor judges of how we'll feel in the future – brands should remember this before pulling campaigns they've spent months toiling over.

Campaigns should try to account for all kinds of scenarios, from a Christmas vaccine miracle to a deepening recession and second spike; and to be flexible enough to tweak their approach, even at the 11th hour. For some brands, the big set-piece ad will resonate; for others, yuletide excess may come across as inappropriate.

Strange times require novel approaches to advertising testing and neuroscience can be applied to accurately assess reactions (not opinions!) to concepts, moods, images and language. Keeping abreast of the pandemic situation, accounting for changes and paying attention to the detail is what will separate tone-deaf Christmas ads from the real treats. Consider this before scrapping everything.

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