On Christmas Adverts

Do you know what time it is, Hypothetical Audience? Well, as I write this it’s half two on Sunday, but that’s not what I’m getting at all. It’s actually that specific time of year, just past Halloween and Remembrance day, where the retail sector in the United Kingdom cranks into high gear with it’s marketing engines and bombard us, the consuming public, with christmas adverts until Boxing Day. It happens every year, obviously, and each company seems to try to out do both each other and themselves year on year. We get a whole cornucopia of thirty-seconds-to-a-couple-of-minutes films intended to sell us stuff, some directly by rubbing their products in our faces, others by desperately trying to pull at our heartstrings to make us forget it’s an advert. All in the name of crass commercialism, you see, for an event appropriated from Christian tradition that was likely appropriated from elsewhere ad infinitum. What fun!

The commercialisation of Christmas is nothing new, it’s certainly been going on as long as I can remember (which is, admittedly quarter of a century at most), but it does seem to get worse with every given year. Ignoring Christmas Creep, which is a subject for another time, for the moment, the sheer lengths taken to promote the holiday, or more specifically products sold for it, are astounding. Every shop with a vested interest in the holiday will become decked out in gaudy decorations, masses of product variations that we only see this time of year yet aren’t that different to normal and offers that seem like a good deal at the time, yet probably aren’t. And that’s just in the physical locations, if they’ve got anything close to a decent marketing budget then it inevitably spills out into the media world. Every commercial TV channel, radio station, newspaper, magazine, bus shelter and motorway verge will be in on the act. From about mid November it will pretty much be saturated.

Which brings us neatly on to television adverts. Thankfully here in the UK we do have such a thing as non-commercial TV and Radio in the shape of the BBC so it is possible to escape the tide of adverts for products at least, though you’ll still have to put up with ads for upcoming Christmas TV even then. Though if you ask me, that’s not half as bad. Every other channel remains commercial and, therefore, saturated, and these do represent the vast majority of media sources available here. As with any kind of advertising christmas ads generally seem to conform to genres, for lack of a better word. You have you’re artsy ones, that may end with a corporate logo but generally don’t shill specific products rather try to tell a “heart wrenching” story in an incredibly short format; Those that try to fit a story around throwing products and/or services but still try for an artistic look; those that are out and out sales pitches with a little tinsel added for good measure and finally their brethren in arms the ultra-low budget product pitch with tinsel, which are usually hilariously bad.

As per the usual advertising tropes and clichés there are serial offenders who are constantly doing christmas ads of various severity year upon year. Special mention goes to Coca Cola which has used the same advert for what I swear has been at least twenty years, possibly even longer. You know the one, the one with the trucks in. It’s even reached the point where some people don’t consider the Christmas period truly started until it comes onto our screens. Other than that, one that’s certainly become a serial Christmas ad offender in recent years has been department store John Lewis, who have managed to make themselves into a yearly fixture as well. Unlike Coke, however, they actually exert effort each passing year and produce new and more interesting ways to emotionally manipulate us from our hard earned sterling.

And so we get to the meat of this rambling mess: This years Christmas adverts. There are two specifically I want to talk about a bit more in depth but first a couple of random ones that have also caught my eye. That odd entity that is Argos, a catalogue store for those not in the know, decided to pick this time of year to drop the frankly disturbing blue alien things they’ve been using for far too long and replace them with… well, I can only describe them as adverts for some kind of fashion boutique scored with a vaguely R&Bish Saxophone version of Jingle Bells over the background. The end result is visually far better than what they had, but doesn’t really reflect what I consider Argos to be at all, they’re not some swanky clothing joint but a glorified mail order company. Not entirely sure what they were aiming at with this myself.

The next brief mention goes to German discount supermarket chain Lidl, who’s Christmas offering continues their existing advertising campaign of ordinary people being inexplicably baffled by the fact a product they’ve been given comes from the titular store. For this advert the situation is applied to a very traditional looking British family Christmas. The end result isn’t as cheesy or saccharine as some christmas ads, and is far more tolerable because of, but it still has the issue inherent with the campaign in general, the reactions of people, basically “Oh my god, this is from Lidl?!” and other such over reaction is absurd. It’s implied they’re real people, but I’d worry if anyone actually reacted like that near me about something so ultimately insignificant.

Now, on to the two big hitters I want to discuss. First and foremost we have John Lewis. Like I said above they’ve become a fixture of Christmas television in these parts, and this years offering is as saccharine and faux heartwarming as we’ve come to expect. The plot is fairly simple: that old, old story of a boy and his penguin companion going through life surrounded by products we can purchase right this second (right now!) from John Lewis Stores Across The Country. Over the course of events the penguin gets depressed as it is a lone penguin (all together now: D’aaawwww &c.) and drastic measures must be taken so a second, companion, penguin is bought in. Then the grand reveal happens and it turns out both are toys. That you can no doubt buy from your local John Lewis. Apparently there shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house by this point.

Now, did you get the creepy undertone of that? I sure as hell did! Take away the allegedly heartwarming reveal and the whole thing with the second penguin comes across as either a penguin mail order bride or even avian sex trafficking! While yes, I’m fully aware that is genuinely how we treat our pets and domestic animals, the idea of buying in a companion creature doesn’t come across as sweet to me, more kind of exploitative. And we’re supposed to all line up and go aww like good little consumers. This apparently works, I am astounded to say. I’ve seen people say on social media how it “had them in tears” and so on. This happened last year too. Now, I appreciate that both the fact emotional triggers are highly subjective and that I’m a jaded cynical wanker, but throughout the whole advert, even before I twigged the sinister aspect, my mind was constantly telling me “This is trying to make you buy something.” Personally I find that more than an antidote for whatever response the advert intended in the first place.

Finally we come to Sainsbury’s showing. I will admit I heard about this in advance of seeing it, and what I heard coloured my opinion straight away. But, in the interests of fairness I did sit down and watch it. The end result? No change in opinion. Anyway, the general gist is this: It’s the First World War, specifically Christmas 1914, and times are hard in the British Trenches. But, a young Tommy has received a care package from back home. Then, as night falls the occupants of the opposing trenches start singing Christmas carols, since the German carol we know as “Silent Night, Holy Night” also has English words and is popular on both sides. As morning breaks, said Young Tommy breaks cover and approaches the Germans essentially offering a truce. The Germans scramble, but then the Tommy’s opposite number, also a young private notices the lack of weapons and goes to meet him. Others join, and soon both opposing armies meet in no-mans land to celebrate christmas together. After a while the artillery can be heard in the distance so both sides bid each other good bye and return to their trenches. As he returns, our Young Tommy from before leaves the chocolate from his care package in his opposite numbers coat, as a moment of christmas sharing. Cue tagline and fade to black.

Now, this is genuinely heartwarming stuff, mostly because it’s based around real events. And there lies my main issue with it. Last week I outlined my feelings about the First World War, and the Christmas Truce of 1914 both shows how pointless the whole affair was and that there’s some good in humanity. To use it to shill a supermarket is deeply distasteful if you ask me, to the point of bordering on offensive. The timing of it all, falling in the hundredth anniversary of the event merely compounds the fact. Now, I did like the fact it was a private soldier rather than officers that initiated it, and the advert is part of a larger partnership the store happens to have with the Royal British Legion (the British armed forces veterans association, essentially), but still it strikes me as a case of commercialisation going to far.

We are on a daily basis we are bombarded with media messages, it’s just the society we’ve built ourselves, so I don’t really expect it to change just for a specific day of the year that no-one is really that observant of in regards to the original message. I also won’t begrudge advertising for doing what it’s made for (that would be hypocritical of me). However, the sheer circus that surround marketing at Christmas is getting worse and reaching more cringe inducing highs year on year. Perhaps next year we should all celebrate Christmas by having straight talking adverts that don’t try to make it seem more than it is, and don’t try to be manipulative at all. I doubt it can happen, given the money in retail that time of year, but a guy can dream, right?
Until Next Time, guys,

—Bah Humbug Day Minus 39

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