Don’t let Covid be the Grinch that steals Christmas
A view from Lynne Deason

Don’t let Covid be the Grinch that steals Christmas

The pandemic will be hard to get away from this festive season, but ads that reference Covid without good reason will just serve as a disheartening reminder of this year's challenges.

2020’s Christmas ads could give us all a much-needed lift, but it seems I’m not alone in fearing that Covid may be the Grinch that steals the festive spirit and joy out of Christmas advertising this year. 

There has been a significant decline in the number of people who have been looking forward to seeing Christmas ads on TV this year. According to recent Kantar research, only 30% of people were looking forward to watching the Christmas ads compared with 46% last year. 

It’s not just a case of "bah humbug" either. There’s a real feeling that Christmas ads won’t be the same or will fail to reflect how life truly is. But perhaps this is more indicative of a wider malaise during the current crisis. One in three of respondents in our research admitted they felt "anxious", while one in five felt "sad".

There are those who have been financially affected by the crisis and don’t want the added pressure to buy things they cannot afford; 39% predict they will have to cut back their Christmas spending; and just 11% are confident that Christmas will be good this year.

This is a real call to action for brands and the industry to ensure that Christmas ads hit the sweet spot in terms of tone of voice and authenticity. 

The popularity of advertising in the UK has been waning over the past 20 years, while humour in advertising has also declined. But Christmas ads are usually a huge source of enjoyment in their own right. The emotions that they provoke compared with other ads tend to include affectionate, excited, inspired, contented and proud. These feelings halo onto the brand and increase the level of warmth and love for them.

Last year people told us that advertising plays a key role in getting them in the mood and that some ads, such as Coca-Cola’s "Holidays are coming", have become part of the cultural fabric of Christmas. 

Kantar’s 2019 research into which TV ad campaigns worked best with viewers highlighted that festive ads earn attention by taking us on emotional roller coasters. We summarise the degree to which ads evoke an emotional reaction on people’s faces while watching an ad, in a measure called "expressiveness". On average, the expressiveness of 2019’s very diverse set of ads was in the top 20% of all UK ads.  

Aldi’s "Amazing Christmas show" was the most powerful ad, tapping into the Greatest Showman movie, with its popular soundtrack and return of Kevin the Carrot. John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners' "Excitable Edgar" was the most enjoyable ad because viewers felt it celebrated Christmas more than any other, with themes of friendship and inclusivity wrapped up in the magic of Christmas. The ad that generated most love for a brand was Walkers’ "Too good to share", combining a popular Christmas song, a glamorous celebrity and a good dose of humour – and holding true to the "too good to share" campaign idea.

I hope this Christmas there isn’t a repeat of the generic wallpaper of "sadvertising" that we saw during lockdown. Brands that simply talked about "being here for you" were considered by some to be jumping on the Covid bandwagon. Where there was no genuine reason to reference the crisis, it just served as another reminder of it, which is the last thing people want or need. 

We saw comments like: "I don't really see how a frozen-food company is helping people get through lockdown – this comes across as an attempt to boost sales" and "I know coronavirus is important, but I am so sick of everything being about it", which clearly showed people’s frustrations at brands with nothing distinctive to say. 

Covid ads that focused on what brands were doing to make a difference to people’s lives were more effective. Heinz’s partnership with Magic Breakfast was a great example. People welcomed hearing about the 12 million breakfasts Heinz was providing for the most vulnerable children and openly acknowledged that it made them feel more positive about the brand.  

Brands this Christmas must make sure that any attempt to connect with Covid is truly authentic and has an intuitive connection with the brand. Kantar research showed that the average branding score across the Covid "we’re here with you" ads seen earlier in the year was in the bottom 25% of all ads in the UK. A lack of distinctiveness not only means that an ad will struggle to grab attention, it also means that the brand isn’t remembered – except for where extremely powerful branding cues are integrated into it. 

The challenge at Christmas can be harder than ever. If your brand isn’t necessary to the story, then alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear in your ears. 

It’s still early doors, but the ads we’ve seen so far are largely lacking that mood-lifting magic we see at Christmas. Amazon’s ballet dancer is a beautiful, heartwarming story, encapsulated in the line that the show – in other words, life, our passions, the arts and Christmas – must go on, but the role of the brand feels forced. In contrast, TK Maxx’s "The lil’ goat" provides much-needed light relie. So I’m pleased to see brands being true to their personality and recognising that appropriate and authentic humour is very welcome. 

This is equally true for Aldi: who needs Goose at Christmas when you can have Turkey as a co-pilot? John Lewis’ promise of making a difference to those most in need at Christmas could pay real dividends, as long as the brand lives up to any commitment it makes and lifts the mood of the nation in how it tells the story, rather than depressing us even further. 

With impulse purchases harder to win and consumers increasingly shopping online – even before national lockdown was announced 75% of people said they planned to buy presents online – it’s more important for advertisers to create that predisposition to choose your brand over other alternatives.

Christmas advertising can play a positive role in lifting our spirits and helping us enjoy the festive season. We can still celebrate its real meaning, even if we can’t be together in the ways that we would really like to be. 

Lynne Deason is UK head of creative excellence at Kantar

Photo: Display in Australia detailing the Grinch's to-do list for 2020 (James D. Morgan/Getty)

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