Christmas ads 2019: Adland reviews John Lewis, McDonald's and more

Edgar, Archie and Nicholas stand in firing line.

Clockwise from top left: Tesco, McDonald's, KFC, Sainsbury's, John Lewis and Waitrose, and WWF
Clockwise from top left: Tesco, McDonald's, KFC, Sainsbury's, John Lewis and Waitrose, and WWF

As the influx of Christmas campaigns slowly plateaus, Campaign has called on a number of industry folk to offer their thoughts on last week’s biggest and boldest ads.

This week, we look at Sainsbury's "Nicholas the sweep" by Wieden & Kennedy London, WWF "Adopt a better future" by Uncommon Creative Studio, John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners "Excitable Edgar" by Adam & Eve/DDB, McDonald’s "Archie the reindeer" by Leo Burnett, Tesco "Delivering Christmas" by Bartle Bogle Hegarty London and KFC "Christmas turkey" by Mother London.

Ben Bilboul, chief executive, Karmarama

Baby, it’s cold outside. And when it comes to good cheer, it’s frankly flipping freezing.

Maybe that’s why so many of this year’s Christmas campaigns turn their backs on reality for the past, the animated and the fantastical.

But, in the words of that Christmas almost-classic, do any of them Escape to Victory?

The tried-and-tested formula is present and correct in nearly all cases: long time lengths? Tick. Famous songs re-recorded in a folky minor key? Tick. Celebrities (albeit from the Jim Bowen discount aisle)? Tick. Cute kids and animals? Double-tick. 

But the more emotional end of the John Lewis canon is swerved for something a little more feel-good. Which means there’s no lump-in-the-throat moment – just wry smiles and impressive special effects. Maybe 2019 has already been too emotional and this is a deliberate ploy to play in safer territory – but the best Christmas ads make you feel something, man, and this year we’ve chosen not to go there.

But special shout-outs to Sainsbury’s and John Lewis – they at least went for it and the ambition, craft and budget are plain to see. I’m not sure Waitrose gets much of a look-in, but you can tell thousands of Edgars will fly off the shelves. Sainsbury’s 150-year-old epic is also beautiful to behold and claiming that you invented Christmas is an impressively ambitious sign-off.

And two campaigns that stand out for going off formula. KFC’s brilliantly animated takedown of turkey combines a real-world insight with a fresh execution that stands out in the same way the very first John Lewis ads did. And WWF’s Xmas plea to adopt a jaguar at least harnesses the Christmas spirit to something that actually does good.

Is this the immaculate conception of a new approach – real-world work that maybe does some real-world good? That depends on how badly reality bites in 2020.

Rachel Morris, creative director, Grey London

Tesco: this is fun! It’s full of Christmas nostalgia for everyone and is a sweet creative idea that integrates product seamlessly. They got ravers and glow sticks into a Christmas ad, which gets massive bonus points from me. Lighthearted, cheery, charming and cameos from the queen and Bully’s special prize. Love it.

Sainsbury's: it’s a brave move to play with Santa’s origin story, but I think they’ve done it well. Huge amounts of storytelling, craft and great casting. I’ve become slightly obsessed with the details, like the London Eye in the background, but especially the Gotcha pole. Is this available as merch? I’d love one – it might help with my Mac charger that keeps going missing from my desk. 

John Lewis and Waitrose: hats off to the creatives whose desk this brief lands on. Imagine the pressure of delivering year on year. 2019 doesn’t disappoint: a lovable character, a story of triumph, friendship and Christmas spirit. Only Scrooge couldn’t love this. The family next to me at a curry house last week were telling the waiter about it – therefore a massive success already. 

WWF: it’s a bold move at a time of overconsumption to ask us collectively to do something to help the future of the planet. The stop-motion technique really hooked me in and captured the devastating effect of burning forests on its inhabitants. 

It left me wondering: imagine if AirPods got outranked by jaguar adoption on Christmas lists – wouldn’t that be powerful? But you know what? If the same kids that marched on our streets are the same kids who’ll see this, that might just happen.

KFC: if you’ve never fucked up the turkey, have you even Christmassed? These resonate. And the animation style really stands out among the Christmas ad flurry (reminds me of Aeon Flux – showing my age but the 1990s have come full circle, so there).

Shorter formats are attention-grabbing in an attention-short world, combined with the human truth that a nation dreads the annual turkey pressure. These work. Is KFC open on Christmas day too? Asking for a friend.

McDonald's: all the ingredients of a classic Christmas ad and what’s wrong with that? A heart-warming narrative, lovable characters, a dog in antlers, sibling bonding. All wrapped up in a beautifully animated parcel. Kudos to the team who wove a Drive-thru into the script. 

Richard Denney, executive creative director, St Luke’s

Christmas is coming thick and fast, and what is apparent is the majority of agencies and brands involved have really got into the spirit this year. There’s lots of great work out there, which is definitely making me feel all Christmassy. But after all this emotional and financial investment, at the end of the day, will I remember who all these Christmas crackers were for? 

First out of the stocking is a wonderful bright orange satsuma from Sainsbury’s. And what a clever bit of branding it is too. As a child, I always got a satsuma in my stocking, so thanks Mr and Mrs Sainsbury’s. Ya warmed me bleedin' heart, ya did.

Next up is a dark stop-frame animated film from WWF. Adopting a better future is a strong idea and the execution will definitely help it stand out among the festive spread, but I go back to the first time I saw "A dog is for life not just for Christmas" for the Dog’s Trust. So relevant and simple, and still just as strong as it was 40-plus years ago.

According to the Twittersphere, Christmas doesn’t arrive until John Lewis does. Personally, I’m not a fan of the track, but once again it’s a beautiful story, masterfully told. And with lovable Edgar, you just know they have a hugely memorable asset they can merch the shit out of. The fire’s lit and the Christmas feeling is glowing.

McDonald’s is building on its "#ReindeerReady" success of last year with a charming new spot combining animation and live action to add some freshness to a familiar narrative. I really like this, but hashtag aside could the story be for anyone?

Tesco is driving full speed down memory lane, stopping along the way to drop off some nostalgia, and although I really love parts of this I can’t help but dislike parts too. It’s hard to keep up with at times and calling the driver "future man" makes my bloody toes curl, but at the end of the day there’s no doubt who it's for.

Last but not least, KFC has released a series of short 10" ads created by the amazing talent of Golden Wolf. Brave thing reminding everyone of their turkey horror stories. But it’s done with the kind of style and wit KFC has become famous for, and I find this is very, very, very, very, very, very acceptable.

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