In recent years, we’ve seen a new addition to our Christmas traditions. No, I’m not referring to that unseemly American import Black Friday, I’m talking about blockbuster TV advertising. Christmas is when Britain’s biggest brands go head-to-head to try and capture the nation’s hearts (and our wallets).
Of course advertising at Christmas is nothing new, but in recent years brands such as John Lewis have upped the ante considerably. Now – like the Super Bowl in the US – Christmas is a high stakes game. With a significant portion of their marketing budgets being spent on these advertising extravaganzas, expectations ride high, and the need to avoid becoming the Turkey of the Week takes on an additional meaning.
This year, amidst the discussion in the industry about whether "Buster the boxer" or Wes Anderson won Christmas, one important aspect of the seasonal campaigns has been largely overlooked – their diversity.
There wasn’t much variation to the themes, which typically revolved around traditional subjects such as family gatherings, celebrations, and (surprise, surprise) the joy of giving. However the diversity of people featured in the ads themselves stood out. For example, this year’s John Lewis campaign wasn’t just a departure for the brand because it was funnier than usual; it featured a black family for the first time. Currys PC World also cast a black family for its ad. Sainsbury’s animated tale featured a family of mixed ethnicities. Boots showcased a diverse array of women who work on Christmas day. Not to be outdone, Amazon portrayed the charming friendship of a Christian priest and a Muslim imam.
That wasn’t all. This year’s House of Fraser’s Christmas ad looked more like a Beyoncé video and M&S made Mrs Claus the star of its campaign. Meanwhile Pret A Manger produced a no-frills spot to highlight their apprenticeship scheme for the homeless, featuring a woman from an ethnic minority background who was forced out onto the streets by her own community because of her sexuality.
Step in the right direction
While it is easy to get cynical about these things, I see it as welcome progress. Diversity has been one of the hottest topics in advertising over the last year, with increasing calls for a more representative industry. Initiatives such as the Great British Diversity Experiment sought to prove that greater diversity leads to better creativity. If these Christmas campaigns are anything to go by, it seems that the message is getting through.
Anyone involved in the production of a Christmas campaign will know that casting decisions are not taken lightly. I can still remember hearing stories of black actors and models being rejected for not having enough appeal for a mass audience, so to see the diversity on display in some of this year’s biggest ads is heartening.
In post-Brexit Britain these ads also send out a covertly political message. Much of the marketing communications industry was in shock after the vote to leave the EU, with many wondering if more could have been done to counteract the negative sentiment that emerged during the referendum campaign. In the light of recent events in the US and the rise of populist anti-immigrant movements in Europe, the need for an alternative narrative has never been greater.
The best of this year’s Christmas brand campaigns displayed Britain’s diversity without making a big deal about it. Instead they showed what makes this country great. Of course we still have a way to go. People with disabilities are still generally under-represented, and there’s a lot more work to be done to ensure that the people actually making the ads reflect the UK’s diverse population. But let’s not take anything away from this year’s achievements. By reflecting modern Britain in this way, the advertising industry has sent out a signal and done us all proud.
Jonathan Akwue is managing partner at DigitasLBi and co-founder of the Great British Diversity Experiment