What ingredients must an iconic Christmas ad contain? Why is Christmas such a significant event in the TV world to basically form an advertising category per se? Europeans have a clear idea – they want to spend their Christmas holidays in mutual proximity. Ad makers have been aware of that for decades. Some spots have even gained such a high reputation that they have become the triggers of Christmas spirit. Do you know the most ground-breaking ads? For hints, refer to an Anglo-American cookery book.
Christmas advertising has been a distinctive TV format at least in the last decade. It is more about being the tops in the imaginary “Winning Christmas” category rather than selling a product. Major brands compete with one another during Christmas to introduce the most innovative narratives. Most often, the one who is the best in reflecting the emotional atmosphere is the winner. That is why Christmas spots are full of touching micro-stories, glittering decorations and delicious-looking food.
The proper Christmas advert seeks to inspire the feelings of ease, gratitude, generosity and tradition. In short, the good old Christmas we all know and love. “Firms want to create an atmosphere of mutuality and generosity. They want to be the most precise in capturing the sense of belonging that is felt with extraordinary intensity in this period. They want to celebrate both old and new traditions. TV ad makers then have to answer the question: how to respond to these needs?“ says Simon Gregory from the British advertising agency BBH, explaining the specifics of Christmas.
Expectations are extremely high this year
European consumers are looking forward to this Christmas with exceptional intensity – and planning to spend significant amounts of money. Many of them managed to make savings last year. According to a research by RTL, up to 56% of customers want to make up for what they missed now. It is especially obvious among younger generations. A quarter of participants claim to invest in Christmas more than usual this year. For illustration, the average Briton allocates about EUR 640 to Christmas while in Germany, it is half of the sum.
It is logical as Europeans prefer being generous. Nearly half of the RTL survey participants confirmed that they preferred giving presents to receiving them. It also relates to the fact that people increasingly talk about their wishes and revise their expectations, e.g. through Christmas wish lists. Their pragmatic approach to gifts may be demonstrated by the popularity of gift vouchers or simply cash gifts. And we should not forget about subsequent online reselling if the gift is not to our taste. It is no surprise that the most popular gifts in 2021 are those from the technology, fashion and beauty segments. If we are to specify a single product type, perfumes have been the top. Consumers use all offline and online methods of purchasing available to them – up to 63% of respondents told RTL that they were going to spend more in e-shops. The Christmas fever already starts in the second half of October and culminates during November and December. Special offers, such as the very popular phenomenon Black Friday, are very helpful.
How to “win” Christmas?
Christmas ad makers have very fertile ground prepared this year. The only thing they need to do is to capture the right mood. Mutual proximity and togetherness are absolutely the key aspects of Christmas. However, their manifestation is relatively different in various European countries. Italian preferences may be considered a cliché as Italians want to spend their holidays with their families. Germans prefer a minimalistic format of being just with their partners while the British want to go out and have fun with their friends. In short, different countries have different customs.
In general, all people are looking for the Christmas atmosphere. For example, they enjoy the omnipresent decorations and lights, but what will definitely help them get into the Christmas spirit are the popular and preferred brands. When it comes to finding inspiration when looking for gifts, not only TV ads still have the greatest impact according to RTL. In the rating, social networks have won – maybe surprisingly – third place behind personal experience of family members and friends. In fact, marketers have a chance to find a golden goose during Christmas.
Although being very specific in this respect, the British society is a benchmark for the whole Europe. British Christmas ads are simply legendary and their premieres often herald the arrival of Christmas. Generally, people do not want to be reasonable during Christmas. What they look for the most are emotions and experience. And they expect marketers of their favourite brands to arrange for that. A successful Christmas ad builds on the ideals of generosity, proximity and tradition.
The cream of the crop
What brands are the heralds of Christmas? The following list is definitely not exhaustive but all listed ads have something in common – they undoubtedly managed to go down in TV history…
Hershey’s Kisses (1989)
There are not many ads reflecting the general focus on Christmas traditions and customs as the one for the popular chocolate Hershey’s Kisses candies made by Ogilvy & Mather. Despite being presented more than 30 years ago for the first time, the company uses it repeatedly during all Christmas holidays in more or less the same form. In 2012, it got a modern facelift using CGI technologies. The message is the same – Christmas is a time of peace and wellbeing. And delicious chocolate is its inseparable part.
Video: Hershey’s Kisses (version 1989)
The popular candies are designed as Christmas bells for the advertising purposes. They produce the melody of the Christmas carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. The advert’s visual includes a text to wish a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all viewers. Nothing more, nothing less. It is one of the oldest (and for Hershey’s the oldest) TV ads that are aired at present. This can be explained by its seasonal nature. In 2020, Hershey’s sought to get on with a new ad. However, viewers were outraged by the expansion of the concept to include shots of family Christmas preparations. Finally, the firm decided to make a compromise and both versions are now aired simultaneously.
Chocolate bells will definitely not leave TV screens easily.
Video: Hershey’s Kisses (version 2020)
Yellow Pages (1992)
Yellow Pages seem to be communication prehistory in today’s era of mobile phones. Yet it has not been long since they were indispensable to any household. Just like Christmas. It makes sense that the company wanted to do its bit in making the Christmas ad mix. Its effort resulted in one of the most iconic spots ever.
The ad plays on the widespread Christmas tradition – a kiss under the mistletoe. It is the first Christmas ad using a comedic approach to the topic. It is a trend that has become one of the cast-iron certainties for holiday ad creation over the years. The narrative is not complicated at all. A small boy wants to kiss a much taller girl holding mistletoe over his head. Seemingly insolvable situation, which the witty boy resolves using Yellow Pages as a step. In the background the voiceover says “Good old Yellow Pages”.
Video: Yellow Pages
The boy under the mistletoe – now 35-year-old Dean Cook – runs his own upholstery business in Essex. Although it has been many years since the ad was shot, he still gets recognised in the street. “When I made the commercial, I had no idea how iconic it would become. I was six when my mum Carol signed me up to a casting agency after she saw how much I enjoyed being on stage on holiday in Spain. Incredibly, my first audition was for the Yellow Pages advert just a few months later,“ he recalls.
He became a mini-celebrity at school thanks to this advert. He also got a bit of positive attention from the girls. As an actor, Dean Cook hang up his hat years ago. Yellow Pages have become a relic of the past. However, the memories of an amusing holiday ad have been more than vivid. “As I settled down in my cinema seat in December 2013, the man in the row behind tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Is that you?’ he asked, pointing to the screen,” says the child legend.
Coca Cola (1995)
The Christmas ad for the world’s most popular lemonade has changed many times over the years it has been aired. But it still keeps its status quo after the years. In fact, it is a harbinger that Christmas is really here. Thanks to a sophisticated marketing campaign, Coca Cola achieved this through audio visual means as well as in the real world. The Coca-Cola Christmas Truck is a unique concept whether it is on the screen or on the parking lot in your city.
Video: Coca Cola (1995)
We have to remember that Coca Cola introduced Santa Claus in the US and across the world. At least in the pop-culture form that has been made popular by Coca Cola through its massive marketing campaign. “Nothing lights up Christmas like Coca-Cola,” says the slogan on the iconic Christmas truck. This premise has applied for many years. It is the atmosphere of almost children’s expectation that the spot is playing on, awakening childhood memories in its viewers. It reminds them that some things do not change – and that Christmas can be a special time even after all those years.
Video: Coca Cola
Coca Cola is very creative and innovative in its marketing campaigns. There are not many companies having the same courage and funds for such experiments. Christmas strategies are no exception. At the start of this century, the truck ads disappeared from the screen just to reappear in a new design in 2007. Its key ingredients had been preserved, including the rhythmic jingle “Holidays Are Coming”. The jingle has gradually become another time-proven classic produced by Coca Cola. In 1971, the company broke all barriers of the imaginable with the choir singing “I’d Like to Buy a World a Coke”.
But it was at Christmas in 1995 when Coca Cola hit the right note and perfectly depicted what viewers expected from the ideal Christmas experience…
Video: Coca Cola (2020)
Marks & Spencer (2006)
The British retailer Marks & Spencer is another player who has left an indelible impression in Christmas ad history. Its Christmas marketing has undergone a noticeable development over the years. An ad that at first sight does not seem to have anything in common with Christmas is considered the most significant TV event in which M&S bet on one of the innermost human passions – food.
Video: Marks and Spencer – food (2006)
The background music is also not typical of Christmas. Carlos Santana’s casual guitar solo in the instrumental composition “Samba Pa Ti” is sufficiently relaxed to illustrate what we expect from Christmas. This is supported by visuals making our mouths water. The ad is a simple catalogue of holiday food that they love in the UK. “Food porn” in its traditional form. The seducing voiceover is in fact a holiday menu read aloud. Do not look for any big narrative – this ad builds on pure pleasures.
Video: Marks and Spencer – food (2020)
It is the first ad where the chain used its signature slogan “It is not just…” (complete as needed). Its author is the advertising agency Y&R that produced all of the Christmas marketing campaign in 2006. M&S still maintains the tradition of Christmas ads. The company sticks to food but the identity of its ad campaigns has changed markedly. It relates to the milestone in the advertising world achieved by another very popular British retail company…
Video: Marks and Spencer (2021)
John Lewis (2007)
“I believe that the public perception of the John Lewis brand changed completely after they had started making Christmas ads,” says Simon Gregory from BBH. It is true – in 2007 the retail chain started a revolution in terms of the creative process and viewer experience. The most noticeable change was the emphasis put on structured narratives. The dominant themes are the “unlikely friendships”. However, it took John Lewis additional four years to deliver a story that quickly won people’s hearts.
Video: John Lewis (first ad 2007)
The campaign in 2011 was dominated by a spot named “The Long Wait“ featuring a boy waiting impatiently for Christmas. The ad makers make viewers think that the boy just cannot wait for gifts. In the end we find out that all the time his key motivation was his wish to give a present to his parents. It was a Christmas message of human proximity as it should be. Since that time, the unveiling of a new John Lewis Christmas ad has been a long-awaited event. And the Christmas spirit comes with it.
Video: John Lewis (The Long Wait 2011)
John Lewis’s cookery book has expanded over the years. The first ad produced by Adam & Eve in 2009 was playing on nostalgia and the idea that at Christmas adults feel like children again. In 2012, viewers were watching an animated epic journey of a snowman wanting to buy a warm scarf for his loved one. Christmas in 2013 went on in the spirit of friendship between a bear and a hare who did not want his friend to be deprived of Christmas happiness. In 2014, Monty the penguin got a plush friend at Christmas from his owner not to feel alone. In 2015, a little girl won our hearts. She was sending a telescope to a lonely man on the Moon. And finally in 2018, Sir Elton John recapitulated his life and career in the Christmas makeover of his megahit “Your Song”. This was just a random choice.
Video: John Lewis (Man on the Moon 2015)
Video: John Lewis (Monty the Penguin 2014)
John Lewis has changed the view of Christmas advertising and has become the trendsetter. After launching the first ad, a countless number of firms stepped into the same river with a similar effort to address emotionally broken audiences. “When John Lewis started making ads that brought them attention of the entire nation, people realized that the brand was purely British. The ads were touching, sweet and, what is important, strongly emotional. They have gradually become part of national identity,” summarises Simon Gregory.
Video: John Lewis (Elton John 2018)
There is nothing more to add but wish all people to feel the carefree Christmas euphoria this year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Video: John Lewis (the latest ad 2021)