“Christmas has two ‘S’s in it – and they’re both dollar signs,” drawls the ad exec in the classic 1958 Stan Freburg radio sketch, “Green Christmas”.
Judging by the advertising juggernaut that cranks into gear every festive season, you may surmise that nothing much has changed since the height of the Mad Men era.
And yet. Christmas in Europe (particularly in the UK) is often compared to the Super Bowl in terms of the creative outpouring it provokes. But there’s a key difference. While the Super Bowl is a live sports event, one of the very few broadcasts that can still unite people around a TV screen, Christmas is a far more diffuse occasion. There’s no reason why Netflix – or for that matter, any other form of entertainment – shouldn’t steal those vital eyeballs.
So the advertising industry seems to have come to a conclusion. Rather than focusing on obvious product messages, it uses this time of year to build brand equity through emotion, storytelling – and above all, entertainment. Films that are attractive and shareable. The Christmas advertising landscape resembles of box of brightly wrapped chocolates that are hard to resist.
When I began writing about advertising, the Christmas season was dominated by Coca-Cola and its branding bandwagon, like this example from 1995. Colourful it certainly was – but it lacked a certain…well…subtlety. The ghosts of Stan Freburg’s characters could almost be heard chuckling approvingly in the background.
I realised seasonal advertising could be more nuanced when I saw “The Long Wait” for John Lewis, by – of course – the UK agency Adam&EveDDB in 2011. What I love about this ad is that it focuses on identifiably real people and emotions, before animatronic creatures stole the show.
Having said that, I’ll admit to succumbing to the charm of Monty the Penguin (2014) and this year’s loveable dragon.
One Christmas story that’s often revisited in popular culture is the famous 1914 ceasefire between British and German forces during the First World War. Retailer Sainsbury’s and AMV BBDO made effective use of it for a cinematic spot 100 years later.
I like to think the pair met again in a Berlin cabaret between the wars and became lovers – but ignore me. While the UK is often considered the epicentre of character-driven Christmas advertising, Spain has given it a run for its money. Money being a central theme, as the client is often the national lottery. Who can forget Leo Burnett Madrid’s magnificent “Justino” from 2015?
Although the animation in the above spot is awesome, I sort of prefer the very human Antonio, below, to the animated Justino.
I also took note of this 2017 spot from BBC creative, which features some fairly unusual characters in Christmas advertising: a single dad and his daughter. They actually look like people one might see on London’s streets, rather than an idealised family.
Talking of families, Christmas doesn’t always have to be about generosity and peace for all mankind. What if we got real and made it all about greed and one-upmanship? Enter luxury accessories brand Mulberry.
More recently I’ve noticed a trend towards depicting Christmas as a time of unreasonable stress and chaos, as in this car insurance ad from the reliably amusing Try agency in Norway.
In its over-the-top-ness it’s not without similarities to the more recent spot for Orange by Publicis Conseil in France.
Returning to the human factor again, let’s see how Christmas can bring strangers together – with a little help from Ikea and DDB.
Christmas advertising generally works by touching on universal human truths. But it can reach you on a personal level as well. As a fan of train journeys and the director Wes Anderson, I remember watching the following spot for H&M multiple times.
Finally, for what it’s worth, here’s my little boy’s all time Christmas favourite (so far). Enjoy a merry – and entertaining – festive season.
[Have a look at this year's Christmas ads here]