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And they’re off...early starters in the race for Christmas

09 Nov 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
And they’re off...early starters in the race for Christmas

Dominic Mills is dreaming of the right Christmas as he begins his annual review of the festive ads

Bang…and the advertiser Christmas race is on…already.

I’ve lost count, but I’ve seen a half-a-dozen or so executions in the last few days: Argos, Aldi, Lego, Amazon, M&S, Disney and so on. If I may remind you, it’s still two and a bit weeks to Black Friday and six and a bit weeks until the big day.

Who knows how life will change between now and then? After all, it’s just days since 'Lockdown 2’ came into force, changing the calculations I’m sure, of many advertisers.

A friend, not remotely interested in advertising, said something striking to me last week: “I suppose this year, we need the Christmas ads more than ever.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Friend: “It’s about normality. The ads are a way of making you think life isn’t crap.”

I can see what he means. While everything around us is turned upside down, Christmas ads could provide a reassuring touchpoint.  Most of us, after all, do Christmas the same way year in, year out. What’s more comforting than to see Christmas on repeat?

But will they this time? And should they? What, when it comes down to it, is the right tone to strike? There are different things to think about.

How social, for example, can we be? What happens to elderly relatives and extended families? Even if Boris lets the brakes off, what constitutes responsible socialising?

What exactly are we celebrating? At the base level, you could say it’s about survival — and therefore relief. But not for the thousands of families who have lost grandparents, siblings or even children. They won’t feel like celebrating. Nor will those who have been made redundant.

Then there are all those school kids, students, and those whose jobs are on the line — they don’t have much to look forward to either.

Nor should we forget all those essential workers who will be on duty at Christmas and, unlike ever before, putting themselves in the line of danger.

Somehow then, advertisers have to find the right balance. Too upbeat — the default stance for Christmas advertising — and it’s unrealistic; too downbeat/realistic and hey, we might as well all hibernate and not spend any money.

At the same time we need a bit of escapism, the chance to dream but not, as an experienced strategist put it to me last week, too much ‘joy washing’ (hat tip to DB for that; the term is yours to own).

Throw all this stuff into the mix, watch the ads and then ask yourself how you felt afterwards. Here are some initial thoughts on the first batch.

M&S Food

I don’t know that a return to the glory days of food porn feels appropriate, but it’s clear M&S is trying to convince us that we all deserve a little affordable luxury this time round.

Some of the food on display here looks suspiciously like party stuff, which is obviously verboten, but it’s the dissonance between the sensuousness of the soundtrack and Olivia Colman’s woman-of-the-people, distinctly unsexy, voice that feels clunky.

But, bless her, she’s asked M&S, as the end-frame shows, to donate to her chosen charities — an opaque statement which doesn’t clarify whether this is her fee or whether she’s taken her fee and asked M&S to cough up some more.

Deliveroo

The thing with this ad, is not to take it too literally, which means it needs to be seen as a generic any-time-of-the-year ad for home delivery and not to imagine that there are families all over the UK thinking of having a Thai takeaway on the 25th December.

But it’s just feeble and cheap, rammed together for that seasonal feel with a few shots like a Christmas tree and some decorations. Laugh at the end-frame, which highlights Deliveroo’s three chosen outlets — Pret, KFC and Pizza Express, all well-known for traditional Christmas food.

Aldi

After 2019’s effort which featured Kevin the Carrot’s battle against the vicious Peaky Blinder Brussel sprouts, I had high hopes for this year’s extravaganza.

An extravaganza it certainly is, featuring Kevin’s epic journey through the frozen wastes to get home in time for Christmas and reunite with his carrot kids. But it’s all a bit serious, with not a laugh to be found. It’s all very standard too, with the only nod to today’s Covid situation marked at the end by the absence of any families or humans — just an empty table, albeit one groaning with food.

Asda

The supermarket now under new ownership tries to have it both ways, as the Dad in the ad explains: “We can still make new friends but keep the old traditions,” he says, noting that click-and-collect means safe shopping.

The ‘new friends’ seems to be fluffy kids’ toys. The best you can say for this is that it plays it safe, very safe indeed, with appropriately socially distanced neighbours. But inspiring and exciting it isn’t.

Argos

Last year’s Book of Dreams was a standout of the 2019 season lifted by a propulsive soundtrack, so it’s entirely sensible that Argos sticks to the same loveable family, this time featuring the kids doing a series of magic tricks in front of a suspiciously large audience, an audience that is currently not Covid-compliant and probably won’t be come 25 December.

A disappointment, and I suspect that disappointment will play out in the marketplace too. This, after all, ought to be Argos’s moment — a chance to take on Amazon, among others — what with the rush to e-commerce and all that. But it feels like an opportunity wasted.

Amazon

Here’s the big one from the retailer sweeping all before it, featuring a promising ballerina whose dreams of stardom are cruelly denied by Covid.

Undeterred, and aided by family and friends, she puts on an outside show for her neighbours illuminated by Amazon-purchased lights. The twists? She’s black, lives on a council estate and much of the action is shot in the dark. It’s a long way from the Christmas norm (not to mention Amazon’s standard singing boxes). It’s pure escapism of course, but the underlying message is one of hope and community. An early contender for this year’s gold prize.

While this is a very mixed bag, you have to feel a little sympathy for advertisers and their agencies constantly having to adjust their sights to hit the moving target that is not just the rules but also the mood.

Coming up next week, among other things, TK Maxx’s goat, Ian Wright plays charades for Facebook and Walker’s sausage roll (non-vegan, I assume) crisps.

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