Why brands like John Lewis, M&S and Debenhams are embracing a not-so-white Christmas

The positive portrayal of ethnic diversity is one of the standout themes uniting the 2017 crop of Christmas ads.

Debenhams created a film that reimagines the Cinderella love story and stars a black man and white woman.
Debenhams created a film that reimagines the Cinderella love story and stars a black man and white woman.

The festive ad offerings from John Lewis, M&S and Morrisons all feature multi-ethnic families, while Sainsbury’s and Tesco show a wide range of people from different races and religions. Debenhams, meanwhile, created a film that reimagines the Cinderella love story and stars a black man and white woman. 

The Morrisons Christmas ad features a multi-ethnic family

According to the 2011 census, 14% of people in the UK identified themselves as non-white so the big spending Christmas advertisers may even be depicting a more ethnically diverse society than is currently the case.

Andy Smith, creative director at J Walter Thompson, worked on the Debenhams ad and says the agency was "very conscious" that what it was trying to do was a "modern representation of the Cinderella story to reflect today’s society".

"A key part of this was looking at diversity," says Smith. "But just as much a key part was making sure both characters were very strong leads, so the female character was a strong lead, because if you look at the original Cinderella story she is quite a passive character."

Ete Davies, managing director at Analog Folk, believes agencies and brands are working hard to showcase diversity on-screen.

The M&S Christmas ad received a backlash

"There has been a lot of work done both by agencies and industry bodies to push and encourage brands to be more diverse in their casting," says Davies, who is the co-founder of Stripes, an initiative to brinng more BAME people into the creative industries. "There’s diversity not in just casting characters, but exploring what is a relatively taboo subject around mixed race relationships."

Davies credits the work of Selma Nicholls, who set up the casting agency Looks Like Me, as helping to diversify casting by working with the agency on brands such as Sainsbury’s.

"A few years ago she [ Nicholls] had some real challenges in terms of working with agencies and brands to get more diverse casting," says Davies. "That has changed."

Davies believes the ChristmasSoWhite campaign that ran last year also helped draw attention to the issue of diversity in advertising.

But while this trend is celebrated across adland, the comments section underneath the Christmas ads tells a different story. Brands’ YouTube pages are full of racist vitriol with the Muslim family in Tesco’s "Everyone’s Welcome" Christmas ad raising  particular ire.

The unsavoury comments include dog-whistle racism alongside more covert intolerance. Anti-Semitic triple parentheses abound within the comments indicating the alt-right is orchestrating the backlash. Brands appear to be deleting the worst of the comments but nevertheless a cesspit of hate remains.

Tesco is bullish in its defence of the ad. A spokesman for the supermarket says: "Everyone is welcome at Tesco this Christmas and we're proud to celebrate the many ways our customers come together over the festive season."

Davies says the "unfortunate thing about life is there will always be trolls whatever positive message out there".

Most brands are still keen to tread carefully when attempting to avoid offending anyone

"What I think advertising, brands and media need to do is be more resolute against the trolls and use the power of creativity and communication to show how flawed the argument is."

He believes that in the past brands may have been scared by the prospect of diverse portrayals in their ads, but believes this will no longer be the case because of the recent momentum.

"There is strength in numbers," says Davies. "As more brands find it does not negatively affect sales or brand perception and affinity, and if anything it creates a positive outlook in a world where there is a lot of tension and negativity and the lines are being drawn, I hope they will find a way of standing firm with each other."

He points to Budweiser’s pro-immigration Superbowl ad as evidence of brands being prepared to be more vocal about their political position following seismic events such as the Brexit vote and election of Trump.

However, most brands are still keen to tread carefully when attempting to avoid offending anyone. John Lewis would not comment on whether it deliberately cast a multi-racial family and instead implied it cast the actors in its ad based on their performance in the audition.  

A John Lewis spokeswoman said: "We always choose our actors based on the interpretation they bring to the characters during the audition process."

John Lewis said the actors in its Christmas ad were chosen based on the audition process

Smith argues the ad industry is "responsible for representing this diverse society we live in to try and lead the change because what we do is seen by society a lot more than some other industries".

Another theme that Davies identified from this year’s Christmas ads was that of "bringing people together", in a shift away the more commercially-focused festive ads of the past.

In a Britain that is increasingly divided economically, culturally and politically the idea of inclusivity and bringing people together is a noble ambition.