Andy Nairn, co-founder, Lucky Generals
At this time of year, it’s only right that we remember the very first Christmas. The original source of all our festive joy and feelings of goodwill. A turning point for Western civilisation, albeit a phenomenon born in humble surroundings.
I refer, of course, to the momentous year of 1973 when a band by the name of Slade composed Merry Christmas, Everybody in the West Midlands.
The cultural impact of this masterpiece is known to every thinking person. So apologies if I’m merely stating the bleedin’ obvious by pointing out how it has directly influenced all of this year’s ads.
Take John Lewis for instance, heralding the start of the season with its usual fanfare. It’s the modern, televisual equivalent of "So here it is, Merry Christmas." As ever, the nation will debate the merits of Moz versus previous efforts but this (and the fact I don’t even have to describe what happens in the ad) is, in itself, pretty amazing evidence of the campaign’s power. Extra points for the seamless integration into social and merchandise, as well as for launching it on Sky’s EPG.
Tesco takes a different approach. Literally. The strategy is to embrace the myriad ways in which we all celebrate Christmas. The execution is perhaps a little quiet but the emphasis on diversity is timely and the line – "Everyone’s welcome" – is obviously an affectionate homage to "Everybody’s having fun."
"Look to the future now, it’s only just begun". That’s clearly where Argos and Asda drew their inspiration. Both take a fantastical approach to the festivities: the former with a sci-fi production line and the latter with a Utopian factory. Both are impressive feel-good numbers and well branded, with lots of red and green respectively. But Argos has the extra advantages of a product truth (speed) and a brilliant line (Go Argos).
Of course, one of the key challenges for Christmas advertisers is getting the right balance between tradition and change. According to the Gospel of St Slade, it’s probably best to stick with the tried and tested. For as Slade sings: does not "your granny always tell you that the old songs are the best? That she’s up and rock and rolling with the rest?"
Sainsbury’s has ignored these wise words, going with its own sing-along instead of a more classic approach. Unfortunately, the admirable ambition to do something different is undermined by the fact that the song is too brash (and doesn’t "Every bit of this" sound suspiciously like Tesco anyway?). In contrast, Aldi has taken the scriptures to heart by bringing back old favourite Kevin the Carrot. The idea is all very silly but the familiar character (carrochter?) is hard not to like and puts the food centre stage.
Talking of characters, M&S has roped in (hopefully not literally) Paddington Bear. The ursine scamp mistakes a burglar for Kris Kringle and takes him on an enjoyable romp round the posh parts of London – thus fulfilling the ancient prophecy that this is "the time that every Santa has a ball." It’s beautifully done, there’s a good brand fit and the association has been taken through-the-line. At the risk of being a strategic Scrooge, I just feel a brand of M&S’ stature should be creating culture at this time of year, rather than borrowing from it.
Finally, the Waitrose campaign is clearly an unashamed reference to Slade's profound question: "Are you hoping that the snow will start to fall?" In the launch ad, locals are delighted to be trapped in a pub during a blizzard. The scenario is a neat way to evoke some community spirit and thus find a distinctive role for the food, while the black and white styling also creates a suitably classy aesthetic. It all works very well. Put it this way: I wouldn’t mind being stuck in an ad like this.
Now back to that iconic year in 1973. Reminiscing about Slade's magnum opus, the band's singer Noddy Holder would later explain that: "The country was up the creek. I think people wanted something to cheer them up – and so did I." Of course, nowadays our nation is in marvellously safe and professional hands. But our industry could still do with some cheer. With a few minor exceptions and some possibly unfair quibbles, I’d say these ads provide just that. Merry Christmas, Everybody.
NOTE: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that Merry Christmas, Everybody was co-written by Jim Lea and Noddy Holder. Following a legal challenge by lawyers representing Jim Lea, we are happy to point out that, while it was co-written, it was conceived by Jim Lea. We have removed the line that it was composed by Holder while he was in the shower.
Jim Thornton, deputy executive creative director, VCCP
I love Christmas. Love it. From the very first time Noddy Holder heralds the festive season ‘til the last Quality Street is eaten I’m consumed by the spirit of the season. It’s the familiarity I love, the rituals. We live in an age where increasingly those routines that bound us all together are on the wane. But not at Christmas.
OH I WISH IT COULD BE CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY, WHEN THE BELLS START RINGING AND THE BAND BEGINS TO PLAY
At Christmas, the extended family all sit down to eat together, no presents are opened until after the Queen’s Speech (even though no-one actually watches the Queen’s Speech – unless this year they do the decent thing and give it to Claire Foy), there’s always a tangerine in the bottom of the stocking, the service of nine lessons and carols, circling what we want to watch on telly in the Radio Times double Christmas edition, one of the nieces and nephews always having a monstrous hangover, and Christmas hats MUST be worn at all times. Christmas is a time of familiarity and ritual – rinse and repeat. And in these strange and uncertain times, that’s exactly what I want from Christmas.
CHRISTMAS TIME MISTLETOE AND WINE
CHILDREN SINGING CHRISTIAN RHYME
WITH LOGS ON THE FIRE AND GIFTS ON THE TREE
A TIME TO REJOICE IN THE GOOD THAT WE SEE
Christmas is all about suspending your critical faculties and celebrating the warm and cosy, yes, even with Cliff Richard. And especially with the Christmas ads. They have always heralded the start of Christmas as much as Noddy, even when I was a kid back in the last century. Then it was the Woolworth’s celeb-laden Christmas sing-along extravaganza. For my kids it was – and still is – "the Holidays are Coming". (Boy did Coca-Cola understand the ritual of Christmas – they haven’t bothered changing the ad for about 20 years. It’s as much a part of Christmas as Santa these days.) These ads are generally rubbish by normal standards, but at Christmas they are exactly what’s required: a stocking full of cosy familiarity and a dining table laden with memories. This year I’m delighted to say the ads don’t stray too far from the formula, and they all channel elements of Christmas entertainment past to create something heart-warming.
LAST CHRISTMAS I GAVE YOU MY HEART BUT THE VERY NEXT DAY YOU GAVE IT AWAY
I should start with John Lewis, because that’s the gold standard these days. And it’s also the ad that brings out The Grinch in the industry. But for my money, this is a return to the kind of form that made Monty the Penguin a star. There’s so much to love about this ad: the heart-warming selflessness of the beautifully realised monster, the brilliantly "wrapped" present, the wonderful collision of Guy Garvey and The Beatles. It’s in the grand tradition of Christmas stories of monsters transformed by the spirit of the season and I love it.
I'M DREAMING OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS JUST LIKE THE ONES I USED TO KNOW WHERE THE TREETOPS GLISTEN AND CHILDREN LISTEN TO HEAR SLEIGH BELLS IN THE SNOW
Aldi understands the power of a Christmas "just like the ones I used to know" with the return of Kevin the Carrot. It’s not quite Disney, but it does have a pea/pee pun worthy of a Christmas cracker and that’s good enough for me.
Waitrose goes all cosy black and white, and channels It’s A Wonderful Life with the story of a community snowed in at the highest pub in Britain on Christmas Day, who all come together to create a splendid spread seemingly from nothing. Heart-warming, tummy-warming, knee-warming and toe-warming.
I DON’T WANT A LOT FOR CHRISTMAS
THERE’S JUST ONE THING I NEED
I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE PRESENTS
UNDERNEATH THE CHRISTMAS TREE
Sainsbury’s totally understands that all I want for Christmas is a bloody good sing-along, to the extent that they’ve created their very own song all about the season sung by a wonderful cross-section of the nation. It’s joyous and joyful. I just hope they run it every Christmas for the next 10 years and the song becomes a staple part of the Christmas canon.
Tesco channels A Day In The Life and gives us a snapshot of the nation on Christmas Day, warts and hilarious family-piss-taking all. Just like the best Christmases there’s virtually nothing original about it, but it’s beautifully executed.
GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES WITH BLUE SATIN SASHES
SNOWFLAKES THAT STAY ON MY NOSE AND EYELASHES
SILVER-WHITE WINTERS THAT MELT INTO SPRINGS
THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS
Asda and Argos are both channelling classic films and giving them a Christmas twist. Asda embrace its inner Wes Anderson and brings us a fabulously realised Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style Asda Christmas Factory showcasing lots of yummy chocolaty things, while Argos fell asleep in front of the fire and dreamed up an alcohol induced re-imagining of Thunderbirds, Die Hard and Elf. Both are glossy, easy on the eye and make me feel a little fuzzy.
YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, YOU BETTER NOT CRY, BETTER NOT POUT, I'M TELLING YOU WHY, SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN' TO TOWN
If I have one gripe it’s that there’s far too little Santa in this year’s ads. But fortunately, M&S comes to our rescue with my absolute very favouritest of this year’s bunch. A beautifully told tale of a burglar reformed by the innocence of Paddington and the spirit of Christmas, it’s got the formula absolutely spot on: a retelling of the Scrooge story, Wallace & Gromit style slapstick and stunts, snow, Christmas Eve, chimneys, and a familiar character who appeals to the child in all of us.
Just like Christmas itself, really.
Ana and Hermeti Balarin, partners, Mother
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Suddenly everyone decides to care about what we do. They not only take interest in advertising, like in the good old days, but they long for it. They engage with teasers, speculate about plots, even search for them. They not only not skip the films after five seconds, but patiently sit through the official, self-indulgent 90-second version. They then share them, find excuses to use their hashtags, talk about them at work, and willingly rewatch them. It is indeed a Christmas miracle. A miracle that started around ten years ago, when a high street retailer decided to bet everything on Christmas.
And speaking of the devil, here comes Moz the Monster, no introduction needed. Poor Moz is taking all the beating, but its only sin is being too late for the lovable CG character party. Three years ago nobody would dare speak ill of John Lewis’ weary formula, but since this is apparently the year to be honest, Moz has become the season’s favourite punching bag.
Second in the CG parade comes Paddington, who came flying in to steal Moz’s Christmas thunder and sweep the nation’s heart. We must confess that we don’t love the ad but it’s a very clever and much needed move for M&S. One that will pay back handsomely, at least in popularity.
Still in the anthropomorphised camp we have Kevin. The festive folk from Aldi have done it again. The little orange root is undeniably cute. The spot is beautifully done and in merry spirit, we can even forgive the puns.
Moving on to humans, Waitrose is beautifully shot and edited. It has a solid soundtrack and cast, and the effects are beautiful. It’s a shame that the idea is so hard to digest. Why would a pub carry ready-made Waitrose food?
Tesco’s food campaign is proving its strength and longevity by taking on the almighty Christmas brief without flinching. Warm and familiar, just like Christmas in real life should be.
Sainsbury’s is that film most agencies manage to convince clients to never make: the one with the staff cast. This campaign started off nice enough but the black and white with orange selective colouring plus the lack of a strong central idea seems to be wearing off rather than picking up pace.
Back in magical reality land, Asda invite us on a tour of their Christmas factory, a place where many retailers have taken us before. In this version though the magic dissipates as soon as the food appears. The heavily retouched dishes and the "chefs" who don’t belong in the script clash with the Wes Anderson-inspired art direction.
Finally, there’s Argos, and another CGI fest. It’s well shot and post-produced, with a very strong USP – a rarity these days – but unfortunately unmemorable among the sea of Christmas ads out there.
Phew. This is possibly the Private View with the most campaigns ever, and this is just a taste of the festive fare on offer. Christmas has undoubtedly become our Super Bowl, thanks to John Lewis. Sadly for them, this year everyone seems to have figured out how to pull off their trick. And just like that, the ones who originated this trend have to contend with being another passenger on this sleigh.