CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/CHRISTMAS CAMPAIGNS - Christmas is the time when strategy is sacrificed on the 'altar of seasonality'

Simon Clemmow says 'bah humbug' to this year's crop of Christmas commercials.

The brief from Campaign was for a kind of planning Private View, but perhaps a little more serious as the strategies are probably more interesting than the creative.

But I'm not so sure that the most interesting thing about these Christmas ads isn't some of the "creative" bits.

The most interesting thing about the Woolworths ads, for example, is the large snow-topped "W" outside the window of one of the least convincing home interiors I've ever seen. You gaze at it in wonder, trying to peer through the relentless stereotypical domestic Christmas imagery for another sighting, somewhat distracted from the "wonderful Christmas table/gifts/decorations, wonderful Woolworths value" that the ads try to sell you. So my take-out at the end is simply "Woolworths at Christmas". Maybe that's enough, but you don't need three different executions. And there is no attempt to make any connection to a bigger strategic thought; the line "well worth it" is reduced to near invisibility.

In the main Argos ad, Richard E Grant's rock star has instructed his long-suffering PA to organise his Christmas party and, at the last minute, to get presents for all his guests to show how generous he is. Naturally, she gets them from Argos, thus demonstrating the central proposition: a big range of gifts for lots of different people (with low prices and free delivery chucked in for good measure). The problem comes with wanting to show the products (together with price supers) during the party - electric drills at £39.99 just aren't very rock 'n' roll.

Like the Woolworths ads, there is no strategy here as such. Argos is just using its existing creative vehicle as a memory jog to say that Argos is a good place to get (certain types of) Christmas presents. Again, maybe that's enough. At least it's got a creative vehicle that has begun to establish some kind of brand strategy (aiming to reposition/make you feel good about Argos) during the year. The Christmas ads are a tactical component of the overall campaign, using a tactical line: "Brighter gifts, brighter Christmas."

The Marks & Spencer ad is also strategically bereft. It does super the endline "Exclusively for everyone", but the opportunity to build on the strategy this represents has been ruthlessly sacrificed at the altar of seasonality. The opening question "What makes Christmas magic?" is followed by a series of vignettes of famous people making puns on Christmas rituals such as repeats (Ronnie Barker), a nicely roasted bird (Joan Collins) and having the lads round (David Beckham). I suppose tonally, it does give Marks & Spencer a bit of Magic & Sparkle, but it's definitely a contender for a Worst Use Of Celebrities award, because no connection is made between the celebrities' vignettes and what's available in-store.

So far, then, we have three retail brands with little more to say than "shop here for your Christmas stuff". Each says it in a slightly different way, but broadly they're trying to compete for your attention rather than to differentiate their offer. They won't be troubling the jury at the next Account Planning Group awards but they are masterpieces of clear thinking and communication compared with the ad for Red Letter Days.

It's set "chez Santa", but instead of the traditional grotto and merry elves, it's a warehouse full of boring boxes, a dishevelled and authoritarian Santa, and downtrodden and disgruntled elves. A promising opening that starts getting puzzling when we learn that this sad state of affairs is due to the fact that the presents the elves are dispatching are boring (slippers, toasters, etc).

Things turn ugly when the elves round on us, calling us suckers (presumably for giving/receiving this stuff), and then bizarre when we jump-cut to Santa and the elves indulging in a range of activities including driving a fast car, having a massage and riding in a hot-air balloon. Sipping Champagne in the balloon basket, Evil Elf turns on us again and says: "Don't worry, you'll still get your toaster." What?

To add to the confusion, the ad ends with: "Red Letter Days - give better gifts." Unfortunately, I've no idea who or what Red Letter Days is or are, or how they'll help me give better gifts.

Why do strategies and strategic thinking go out of the window at Christmas?

In the case of these ads, it's because there are no big ideas behind the brands in the first place. Without a big idea, you're only as good as your last ad. Which, on the evidence of this Christmas crop, doesn't bode well for Woolworths, Argos, M&S or Red Letter Days. Ho ho ho hum.

- Readers might like to judge whether Simon Clemmow has put his views into practice for the Carphone Warehouse Christmas campaign; see news, p8.

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