‘Tis the season to spend on advertising

Published: Posted on

Bank holiday traffic

What is it about Christmas adverts that makes them so newsworthy?

By Isabelle Szmigin, Professor of Marketing at Birmingham Business School

As we enter the last days of November, the Christmas ads have well and truly hit our screens. Boots, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Tesco, Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, Aldi and Lidl and not forgetting John Lewis along with many more have all invested heavily in entertaining us with their Christmas stories.

The Advertising Association estimates that there will be a total spend of £6bn this year. That is a huge amount of money for the relatively short time that they will be screened, and begs the question of whether it is worth it. The answer is probably yes. We are expected to increase our spending over last year to an average of over £800 per family. Last year we spent over £77 billion so these few short weeks are incredibly important to retailers both online and on the high street.

Why do Christmas adverts work?

But what is it about these ads that make them so newsworthy? Of course it all started in 2011 with John Lewis’s altruistic child waiting for Christmas to the sound track of Slow Moving Millie singing ‘Please, please, please”,… not bring me what I want for Christmas, but rather bring the moment closer to seeing my Mum and Dad open the gift I have so carefully made for them. I am not at all cynical about this advert; it was a moment of pure genius. I believe that for many of us choosing the right gift and seeing the appreciation of that gift is what makes Christmas special. John Lewis have continued to create excellent Christmas ads, some have worked better than others; the man in the moon was a bit of a low point  in 2015 which cleverly involved a link up with Age UK,  but which frankly was just a bit too serious.

Causing controversy

Some Christmas ads have also proved controversial. The first such was Asda’s 2012 advert which featured a busy mother doing all the Christmas preparations and which ended with the line ‘Behind every great Christmas there’s mum, and behind every mum there’s Asda’. There were over 600 complaints made to the Advertising Standards Authority from men and women complaining that the ad was sexist.  The ASA rejected the criticisms saying that the ad did not condone or encourage discriminatory behaviour. This year, Tesco in the frame with their ad which among others shows a Muslim family enjoying celebrations.

Creating an emotional response

So what of this season’s crop of ads. Personally I found the John Lewis monster ad a bit predictable. Trying to recreate their 2011 success but not quite hitting the mark. Others such as Boots and Debenhams have gone down the storytelling route; with Boots it’s about friendship and Debenhams have recreated a Cinderella story via text message.  And of course Marks and Spencer have cleverly tied up with Paddington. I think my favourite would be Waitrose that shows a group of people having to make the most of Christmas after a snow fall leaves them stranded in a pub. They find enough food to make a celebratory dinner and are disappointed when people come to rescue them.  Ultimately it is not about one store winning over the others, but rather it is about creating a positive emotional response to well-known brands because there are billions of pounds to be won and all these stores just want a share of it.


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