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Christmas ads: lemmings and uncomfortable truths

19 Nov 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Christmas ads: lemmings and uncomfortable truths

Dominic Mills is perplexed as to why some brands feel the need to indulge in Christmas ads, while those that should don't strike the right balance between brand and activation

It never works this way, of course, but Christmas ought to be an ideal period of self-reflection. Have I been good to fellow mankind? Am I a giver or a taker? I really need to be more family and less self.

Just as in real life, so Christmas ads are an opportunity for some reflection in adland on issues such as...budget and stand-out, brand versus activation, differentiation, media planning and so on.

Some of these may throw up uncomfortable truths, issues too difficult to confront. So, just as in real life, it never happens. We’re too caught up in the moment, too busy to pause…and then life moves on.

So what are big areas adland should be reflecting on? I don’t pretend to have the answers (or even all the questions) but let’s have a look at some.

One – to mix metaphors – should everyone join the arms race? Or are they a bunch of lemmings heading blindly towards a cliff?

The Advertising Association calculates that Q4 spend this year – most of which is Christmas-related – will hit £6.4bn, about 25% more than in 2010. That is an awful lot of noise and clutter. Standing out will be hard. I’m struggling to understand why the likes of Heathrow bother with high-profile TV commercials. Choice of airport is rarely an active one, and if it is then why not spread your ads over all the peak flying times?

To a lesser extent, the same goes for McDonald’s and KFC. Sure they all have (higher margin, I assume) festive menus to push. But aren’t there more effective ways to do so? To me, it just feels like they’re buggering it up for everyone else with no discernable benefit to themselves.

Then there are the struggling retailers. I’m not quite the Grinch that the estimable Laurence Green of MullenLowe is here but his point that the likes of Debenhams and House of Fraser might be better off investing some or all of their Christmas TV budgets in fixing their in-store problems rather than winning a short-term battle is a good one. Just think Maplin and Toys R Us. Big spends followed by rapid fails.

Judging by this year’s M&S effort, which feels like a hedging of the bets, it is grappling with just this issue. Compared to last year’s Paddington-themed brand extravaganza, this is a radical change: cheap and remorselessly product-focused. Who knows if it will work? But then, judging by its performance over the year, Paddington had all the impact of a stale marmalade sandwich. So why not try something different.

Which brings us to the second question: what is the balance between brand and activation? Someone should commission Peter Field and Les Binet to look at the issue in the context of Christmas and see if their 60:40 rule applies.

I know life isn’t quite so binary but, broadly speaking, Christmas TV ads default to brand, leaving the activation – such as it is – to ancillary activity and online with the budgets skewing accordingly. But is this right? The concentration on brand activity could clearly be justified if there was a longer-term benefit to be had - even just a few months might suffice. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Brand benefits from Christmas campaigns are gone quicker than the January sales.

As, for many retailers, Christmas becomes a case of survival, so the logic dictates that they should double their efforts on activation. Forget all the warm cuddly stuff and just concentrate on flogging stuff.

But then how to do you secure differentiation? It’s theoretically easier with brand – assuming there is a clear proposition to start with – rather than entering a price war. But it doesn’t always work either. Take the Sainsbury’s Christmas special (below). Leaving aside it’s similarity to the John Lewis/Waitrose Partners launch ad a couple of months ago (who, outside adland, will remember or care?). Strip off the endline and the colour logo and it could be for any other food retailer. There is nothing uniquely Sainsbury’s about it.

(Plaudits, by the way, for reviving my Desert Island #1 music choice, the fizzing ‘You Get What You Give’ by the New Radicals).

Now for some media planning and scheduling stuff. The Christmas ads splurge coincided with Thinkbox’s study last week into the impact of mood state on the way we consume big-screen content.

In descending order of time spent, we have eight mood states: these range from ‘unwinding’ (26% of time), via ‘distraction’ (18%), ‘comfort’ (16%) at the top to ‘indulge’ (9%), ‘escape’ (7%) and ‘do’ (2%). At the top end of the scale, shared live TV viewing leads, while at the lower end, viewing is more likely to be to device and online video. You can read a summary here.

I don’t think the answers are easy – and they will shift as November and December progress – but it seems to me there are important implications for the scheduling and placement of TV ads and video over Christmas. Early on, attention and receptivity matter more. The closer we get to the big day, the need to drive action becomes paramount.

Thus, in a wider context, so the overall media plan at Christmas is critical. If A&E/DDB sweats all year over the creative on John Lewis and Waitrose, so MGOMD does likewise on the media. This year is no exception, and there are some fascinating ways it has sought to push the game on – as any sector leader has to do.

This is where the ability to strike partnerships with media owners helps. Three years ago, the focus was with C4 and Gogglebox; the last two years ago it involved the Sky EPG. This year it’s ITV, involving, among other things, messing around with programme theme tunes (piano versions of the Corrie anthem) and continuity.

Sunday night’s I’m a Celeb break saw the full version of the Sir Elton special, followed later by a Waitrose ad (below) in which a family fast forwards through Sir Elton because they’re more interested in eating some Waitrose stollen admitting that while they quite like Sir Elt, they preferred Monty the Penguin.

Er, right. A bit self-referential, a bit meta. But different, funny and memorable.

And while we can debate, as Laurence Green posits, if this means Christmas ads are eating themselves, it’s as good an example as you will see of one of adland’s holy grails: creative and media hand in hand.

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JohnLowery, Consultant, n/a on 21 Nov 2018
“I'm impressed, Dominic, that you managed to rouse yourself sufficiently to write anything about the dross that is the self-indulgent cavalcade of 2018 Christmas commercials but, at the same time, surprised that you missed the only one that matters – the only one we can't see (unless that is we have a thing called the internet) – Iceland’s ‘Ran Tan’.


P.S. I think they got the activation right.

P.P.S. The proof in the (Palm oil free, Christmas) pudding will, of course, be delivered by Kantar in a month or two.”
DraytonBird, Founder, Drayton Bird Associates on 19 Nov 2018
“I agree. But what is activation? Is it getting people to do something? What other purpose does marketing have?

As Ogilvy's mentor Raymond Rubicam said "The only purpose of advertising is to sell. It has no other function worth mentioning."

Do Aldi and Lidl who are eating others for breakfast spend money on this mawkish slop? It may have worked when John Lewis first did it, but I wager it doesn't now.

To me a pretty good rule of thumb is if everyone else is doing it, maybe I won't.”
LeilaTravis, Controller, ITV on 19 Nov 2018
“Interesting point raised re brand vs activation, however, without seeing their media plans how are we to know? If we make assumptions about the most talked about ads (the ones on TV) this isn't looking at the whole picture. I've no doubt John Lewis have some other activity (activation) running elsewhere but TV is a great place to do the brand piece, to pull at the heartstrings - it's top of the funnel, but is not to say they haven't covered off the bottom of the funnel too, we just don't notice or talk about these ads as much. Re the struggling retailers and their efforts - do we honestly think not advertising at all is going to help?”


17 Nov 2020 

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