CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/CHRISTMAS ADVERTISING - Why Christmas brings out the worst in advertising. Consumers face a blitz of tactical ads during Xmas, Francesca Newland writes

'Tis the first week of Advent and not a decent Christmas ad is stirring except Famous Grouse.

'Tis the first week of Advent and not a decent Christmas ad is stirring except Famous Grouse.

Thank you Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for having produced two of the best Christmas ads of the past few years: Alka Seltzer starring the worse-for-wear Tequila worm, as well as the groovy grouse. They don't only stand out because the rest of adland's Christmas offering is so unmemorable, they're good enough for any time of year.

Having said that, this piece will not be thanking AMV for its WH Smith Christmas bonanza. The sight of a cross-dressing Nicholas Lyndurst fills this particular observer with the exact opposite of Christmas spirit: a desire to kill. The idea had worn a bit thin by last Christmas and I'm rather shocked to see it will be stretched even thinner over Yuletide 2000. AMV's Sainsbury's spot starring Mr and Mrs Oliver is a little twee, too.

Consumers devote large stacks of cash to buying Christmas presents, and as a result, many advertisers put aside vast budgets for the festive period.

However, this suddenly becomes a bit depressing when you realise that it's the likes of Argos and Woolworths who are spending more than pounds 20 million between them to keep their ads on our screens.

Aside from their sheer irritation value, the other really annoying thing about Argos and Woolworths ads is that you know they actually work. No amount of complaining will change that. Status Quo's Whatever you want is thumped into the nation's subconscious with such vigour that, much like robots on autopilot, people head down to Argos to stock up on cheap gift vouchers and presents the instant they hear it.

But why must it be this way? Why do advertisers and agencies seem not to mind churning out lowest common denominator advertising at Christmas time? There are several theories. One is that consumers have money to spend at Christmas, so a clever ad is not required to make them part with it. The problem with this theory is that, yes, people will buy lots of stuff at Christmas, but with all spirits, mobile phone and chocolate brands spending lots on low-grade advertising at the same time, a bit of stand out is not only desirable but also easily attainable.

Another theory, although rather cynical, is that marketing departments have a given annual budget. By about August, they realise that they had better get their arses in gear to make sure the entire budget is spent by January, or the department allowance could well be pared down in the future. So it's a question of getting as many ads on the air as quickly as possible, no matter how dire they may be.

Dave Droga, the creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, thinks Christmas advertising suffers from a lack of investment because the ads themselves do not run for long. 'They're tactical ads rather than branding campaigns.

They want to be in the spirit of Christmas so you can only use them for one month.'

There's a logic in what Droga says, but given the amount of advertisers that try to get around the problem by showing the same Christmas ad for five consecutive years, there should still be a good production budget available.

So far this year, there has been little Christmas advertising that any agency could be truly proud of. Campaign's coverage of new campaigns over the past four weeks has, repeatedly, included sentences running something like 'timed to coincide with the Christmas buying bonanza' over the past four weeks (the first to appear was that old favourite Woolworths, which had to get in early if it was to gobble up its usual share of TV airtime).

The mobile phone companies have got in there early too, but most seem to have opted to raise their profile on our screens without any Christmas theme. This would be a mercy, but none of the ads have been particularly good, despite the lack of an appearance by Santa (only Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R's Virgin Mobile campaign called upon the portly mince pie addict).

A similar strategy has been adopted by beer companies hoping to capitalise on the great Christmas drink-up. Miller and Kronenberg released new campaigns last week without Christmas themes - being as relevant in January as they are in December.

The perfume companies are back with their annual attempt to get husbands and boyfriends to buy unwanted and unimaginative presents for wives and girlfriends. Calvin Klein has dusted off its black-and-white family melodrama starring Christy Turlington, and Chanel No 5 is still paying to air its Little Red Riding Hood ad.

Other drinks advertisers starting to wake up for the season include Lambrini.

The spot uses the great line 'Lambrini girls just want to have fun' - well, they won't have any while watching this ad. Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy has created a credible debut for Bell's starring Jools Holland.

But as the Christmas season gets going for the 2,000th time, it seems a good time to reflect on its own branding. Christmas is a time for tackiness.

Just look at the Regent Street or Oxford Street Christmas lights. As Robert Campbell, the creative director at RKCR/Y&R, perceptively points out: 'It's like all Christmas number ones are dreadful. Everyone goes mad at this time of year. By its very nature, it's tacky. Most Christmas ads are hard-sell messages thinly designed with tinsel.'

So, for now, it would be a mistake to try to raise the intellectual content of Christmas ads. They would no longer fit with the taste deficit that overtakes us all in December. It's the only time of the year that nobody should aim to get an award for their efforts.


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