What’s the business of the Christmas advert?

It doesn’t seem too long ago that the advert we all associated with Christmas featured images of a beaming Santa emblazoned on fleets of Coca-Cola trucks, completing their festive deliveries to rosy-cheeked children.

Those were simpler days, of course, when the Coke ad reigned supreme with a traditional take on Christmas, without so much as a nod to the real world we live in. Today, it’s very different.  Whether we like or it or not, from November, we’re exposed to a parade of Christmas adverts from retailers, who are intent on tapping into the mood of the nation by creating campaigns that work across a vast range of channels and even product lines.

Festive advertising has become as synonymous with Christmas as decorating the tree or stuffing the turkey. And it’s big business, designed to make us part with our hard-earned cash. High-value productions are kept under wraps until the big unveil when their arrival is trumpeted with much fanfare. John Lewis is often heralded as the standard-bearer in this show, but the rest of the brands are not far behind. So much so that, last year, the spend on Christmas adverts reached an all-time high of more than £6.8 billion.

As we come to the end of what has truly been an annus horribilis, we will all be experiencing a very different Christmas from ones we may have enjoyed in the past. And it is interesting to see how the big names are dealing with this in their Christmas campaigns.

Tesco has opted for a fun and light-hearted take on the pandemic by championing a ‘No Naughty List’ policy in its 2020 ad. They are mooting the idea that 2020 has been such a struggle that the naughty list should be given a miss. Instead, they are inviting us to indulge and enjoy as much as we can, all within socially acceptable COVID guidelines, of course. It’s a fun and guilt-free take on what has been a challenging year and feels quite refreshing as a result.

John Lewis and Waitrose have taken a more earnest approach with their ‘Give A Little Love’ themed advert, encouraging us all to show kindness to our fellow humans. There have been some amazing examples of communities coming together to help each other during the pandemic, but, of course, Christmas can be a time of loneliness and heartache for many, so the emphasis on the ‘be kind’ message is to be welcomed.

One advert that has hit the headlines by provoking a reaction from the public is Sainsbury’s decision to focus on families enjoying the simplicities and traditions of festive food. Shockingly, some people took to social media to object to the family in the first of its three adverts being black, saying that the advert didn’t represent them, while others even threatened to boycott the store.

This reaction in itself highlights how our media has, in the past (with some honourable exceptions), rendered people from black and ethnic minority groups as so invisible that the introduction of some balance has come as a shock to some white people. What most of us realise, however, is that diversity enriches us all, as was powerfully shown by three recent Welsh television documentaries – ITV’s Can I Be Welsh And Black? and the BBC’s Wales’s Black Miners and Black And Welsh. Seeing a big name employ black actors for their biggest advertising push of the year is a welcome corrective to decades of imbalance.

And it’s been reassuring to see the reaction of other major supermarkets too. Waitrose, Tesco, Iceland, Asda, Aldi, Marks & Spencer, Lidl and Co-op suspended rivalries to join forces with Sainsbury’s to broadcast an anti-racism message in ad break takeovers on Channel 4, using the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism.

Other retailers have decided to focus more closely on specific causes. It’s no secret that the pandemic has had a crushing effect on the charitable sector, and it is encouraging to see names, like The Body Shop, bring their brand values to the fore with a Christmas advert that highlights the plight of homeless women. Country fashion brand, Joules, has done something similar by partnering with The Woodland Trust and promising to plant a tree for every product from the Woodland Edit they sell.

There’s no doubt that whatever theme and tone retailers have decided to take in their festive advertising, there will be real, hard-nosed business decisions behind them. Marketing teams are only as good as their last campaign and, ultimately, they’ll be judged on results. Cynics will argue that festive advertising is just about getting the tills ringing in December, but the real winners will be those who have also enhanced their reputations for the longer term.

This article was written by our Chief Executive, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 1 December 2020.