Christmas as Advertised

Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes, it brings good cheer along with a massive competition to make a Christmas advertisement which goes viral. John Lewis started it back in 2007, by making clever, poignant, sweet and sentimental little films which seemed to capture the true spirit of an old-fashioned Christmas. Yes, the advertisement was subliminally encouraging us to buy things (doh!), but it was also reminding us that Christmas is really about love, family and sharing. 


The best ads would also tug at the heartstrings so that you would associate the retailer with lots of positive emotions, but it also had to be memorable so that you could compare the current offering with your favourite from the past.


This year’s John Lewis Christmas advertisement was released on YouTube on November 9th and is very much of its type. A young boy is with his Gran at a jumble sale when he spots a box labelled ‘The Perfect Christmas Tree’. At home he plants the large seed therein and excitedly watches it grow into a giant venus fly-trap. His mother is horrified, buys the usual tree and banishes the monster plant to the cold, snowy back garden. On Christmas morning, realising how sad her little boy is about ‘his’ tree, the whole family take their presents outside where the huge venus fly-trap-tree eats the wrapped presents and spits them out, unwrapped to each person along with a shower of tinsel. The final message reads: ‘Let Your Traditions Grow’.


Just four days after the release of the JL ad, on November 13th, Marks & Spencer released its own Christmas Advertisement. And all hell broke loose on Twitter. I am sure that many of you will be innocent of the massive row which ensued, because you have more important things to do like getting on with your lives, but I found it all very entertaining. 


I like to imagine that the creatives who conceived the M&S advertisement started with a brainstorming session. Perhaps they’d just been to the pub and downed a few too many, perhaps one or two of them have terrible memories of their own Christmases or now live in ‘blended’ families with all the challenges that brings. Who knows? But the result is a Christmas advertisement which is devoid of all the usual tropes: No sentimentality, no syrupy music, no cute kids or furry animals and a rather stark and somewhat self-indulgent message at the end: ‘This Christmas Do Only What You Love”.


In case you have been too busy and distracted by all the usual demands of the season to notice it, I’ll briefly describe the ad which features 4 ‘celebs’ (only one of whom I could put a name to) done up to the nines in their M&S finery. It starts well. Each celeb is doing traditional things, putting the manky homemade toilet roll fairy on the tree, icing the huge gingerbread house (me neither), maybe a bit squiffily sticking cotton wool balls on a fake snowman, and playing charades. And then each decides to rebel. One tips up the board to ruin the game everyone is playing, one hits the elf on the shelf over the rooftops with a baseball bat and Sophie Ellis Bextor takes the blow torch she’s using to brown the icing on her gingerbread house and, with a wicked glint in her eyes, sets fire to all her Christmas cards. 


All of which clearly posed an existential threat to everything we are supposed to hold most dear about the festival of Christmas as traditionally celebrated in this country, given the outrage that was generated on Twitter and in comments under the advertisement on YouTube.


The most vociferous and angry keyboard culture warrior, one Katharine Birbalsingh, aka ‘Britain’s strictest headmistress’, penned a vehement letter to M&S demanding that the advertisement be taken down forthwith because, and I quote:


“You have a duty as our national department store to keep the spirit of Christmas alive for the sake of our children. When our nation is on its knees, trying to keep our spirits high for what we can all achieve together, this is not the time for you to encourage people to ignore the inspirational spirit of Christmas of self-sacrifice, gratitude, giving of one's time and finances to help one's fellow man, of children's laughter, of magical tales of Father Christmas, of kindness and of beauty, and instead tell us 'to do whatever we want for ourselves.'”


Well, I suppose she does have a point. If you take a baseball bat or a blow torch to all the syrupy sentimentality that we have come to expect from our Christmas advertisements, and thereby destroy all those time-honoured traditions, then what is left? Nothing that offers much in the way of kindness, compassion or generosity of spirit. 


Then I had a proper look at the John Lewis Ad which has not suffered the same opprobrium. The mum in the JL ad looks stressed a lot of the time, even whilst doing her best in a household that seems to consist of two kids, her mother and no visible husband. It looks like she’s gone to lots of trouble to buy all those presents, decorate the house and tree in order to create a happy day for her family. But, she ends up feeling guilty because she’s banished that huge, ugly, scary, triffid to the back garden. Frankly, I would have done the same! I’m not convinced that the tagline ‘Let Your Traditions Grow’ works as well as ‘At Christmas Mums Deserve a Medal - Not a Guilt Trip!’ I also think the M&S advertisement would work better with a different tagline. Perhaps, instead of ‘‘This Christmas Do Only What You Love” it should be ‘You’re Not Alone - We Loathe Christmas Too”. 


And, this year, there is further irony in the shape of a perfect little ad for a pub in Enniskillen Northern Ireland made for just £700 and which has gone properly viral. In it, an elderly widow is seen taking flowers to his wife’s wintery grave, he then walks down the high street and tries to engage people in conversation but is rebuffed. He pops into the pub for a consoling pint when a young couple come in with a dog. The dog is immediately friendly to the old man and soon all three are sitting and chatting together. The tagline is a quote from Irish poet W.B. Yeats: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met yet.”


My favourite Christmas advertisement this year is from Amazon. Also devoid of winsome kids, cute animals, sparkly stuff or animated fairies, it just features three old biddies (much like you and me!), bundled up in warm clothes, watching all the young folk sledging down a snow covered slope. One has the idea to buy 3 cushions from Amazon to fit in the sledge so that they can comfortably join in the fun. The tagline is very simple and beautifully captures the essence both of the advertisement itself and Christmas: ‘Joy is Shared’.


And I wish you much shared joy this Christmas, whatever your traditions, wherever you are in the world and with whomever you spend the holiday season.


Tricia x

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