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The Gut-Punch Power of the Christmas Ad

Is it possible to convey a huge message, engage millions of people and sell all your products through a minute and half of video?

Retail giants make it look easy, by dedicating huge investments in the perfect Christmas advert. If the era of the X Factor has killed the once mighty battle for Christmas no.1 in the pop charts, supermarkets and department stores have picked up the reins in a desperate bid to produce the most-loved festive advert.

This is corporate advertising like no other – just seconds of video storytelling can encompass powerful campaigns, drive astronomic brand engagement, raise huge sums for charity and even produce spin-off merchandise like children’s books and toys. These are campaigns that live on every surface of our awareness throughout December, from TV and social media to billboards and supermarket shelves. And yet before they are even released people rush to the internet to try and catch a glimpse of them.

This morning the world wide web went wild with speculation that this is a sneak peak at 2017’s ad from reigning champions of the Christmas advert, John Lewis…


The clip appeared mysteriously on social media along with the hashtag #UnderTheBed to channel the anticipation. The font is a giveaway of this iconic brand but so too is the little character we meet. One – it’s totally adorable and I’ve only seen it’s eyes. Two – it’s an it. A strange, magical creature with a nod to teddy bears and just a hint of a Star Wars character or something equally Disney and fantastical. And three – it’s very, very well-made. Clearly, there has been a high investment in the design, animation and concept. All of which reeks of John Lewis.

The classic British retailer really set the trend when it came to blockbuster seasonal ads. Over the last ten years they have given us enchanting penguins, romantic snowmen and hyperactive boxer dogs to name but a few. All were instantly beloved characters with simple yet deeply affecting stories to tell. Each advert plucks at our heartstrings over the most sentimental of seasons and reminds us that Christmas is all about families, sharing and giving. That is, showing our love for one another, sharing our food and giving out gifts – all of which are available in-store and online now! The really impressive power in these adverts is that they achieve all their goals for the retailer and earn them nothing but love from the public. We know these are made to make us buy things, but we’re more than okay with it. In 2015 John Lewis really used their powerful platform for good, painting a picture of a lonely old man on the moon that made us feel warm, fuzzy and like buying someone a present, but also highlighted the plight of the elderly as part of a hugely important Age UK appeal.

The formula works time and time again. The success lies in the investment in the standard of design and animation but also in the storytelling and imagination that goes into the concepts. Each retailer takes a twist on the concept that reflects their brand. Aldi is approachable whilst Tesco has everything a family could need, Debenhams is always glamorous and glitzy whilst Lidl bucks the trend for sentimental in favour of humour.

Take Matalan for example. This week they revealed a 2017 advert which their National Marketing Director Simon Lee describes as “a humorous and realistic representation of a family who are having their version of the perfect Christmas” – the perfect portrayal for a brand that is accessible and affordable. Whilst they deliver on the beautifully shot storytelling approach of the other giants – complete with adorable show-stealing dog – they also show off their stores and products. Others commit so wholeheartedly to the story it’s as though they are making a Pixar short at the start of a movie and not an advert for a shop.

Music also plays a big part in the trend and can be relied upon to help put across so much story in such a small frame. Surprisingly Christmas songs rarely feature and instead folksy covers of hit pop songs or big anthems prove the most popular. This remains true in 2017 with Asda’s latest campaign set to the music of Fleetwood Mac.

As the years go by, we see patterns. In 2015 Sainsbury’s brought to life Judith Kerr’s much-loved children’s book heroine Mog the Cat and this year Marks & Spencer’s have teamed up with the makers of the new Paddington Bear movies – taking literally the feature film quality we’ve come to expect in these ads.

We’ll be watching eagerly over the coming days to see what each retailer is offering for 2017 and to discover who will come out on top. These adverts are a masterclass in the importance of story and character, even in the briefest of films with the most corporate of purposes.

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