Posted on: 19.12.2023

The Secret Rules of the Christmas Ad Industry

Indulge us, if you will, in a little Christmas ad analysis. It’s a popular subject, after all. Year after year, the creative industries fire themselves up with endless think pieces on who popped a true Christmas cracker, and who served up a cold turkey. 

Is the John Lewis ad any good? Asks The Drum. Where are the budgets at? Asks Marketing Week. Check out this year’s lineup! Crows Creative Boom. What do audiences really think? Enquires Kantar. And that’s even without the extra large Celebrations box of criticism directed at Marks & Spencers’ unfortunate effort. The bounty of the box.

So we thought, with the big day approaching, and 2023’s Christmas ads now firmly in the territory of ‘not this one again’, it was time to discern the secret rules we’ve all been judging them by…

You must feel familiar.

There’s a tried and tested format. An emotional, touching story. Probably involving some kids. A twee cover of a well known song from a different genre. Relatable food and products. Family. Friends. The Christmas stuff we never actually experience, like snow and carol singers. Probably a pet. This is ‘The John Lewis Ad’.

But not too  familiar.

All that traditional Christmas ad stuff isn’t enough these days! So you also need a twist. A terrifying venus fly trap for example. Because the ad industry isn’t interested in people playing it safe. Probably because all these ads are made by agencies who need to win pitches, and no one is going to win a pitch with “we’ll make you something inoffensive.” So you’ve got to take risks.

Give it some star power.

There are a couple of ways to define celebrity. The first is the living, breathing, shiny happy people we all see on the telly. Think Michael Buble or Shaun the Sheep. The other is to create one, whether it’s an animatronic carrot with its own expanded universe or an awkward dragon. When done right, the ad industry loves a character! Especially one that doesn’t ask for royalties because it’s entirely CGI.

Don’t be too salesy.

Can you buy a piano from John Lewis? Probably. But has anyone ever? Doubtful. And yet, building a whole campaign around the idea that global pop icon Elton John got his big break from a department store plinky plonk worked in 2018. Trying to show off a bunch of bits and bobs consumers actually might want to buy is far too commercial. Don’t do it.

Use the right soundtrack.

This one used to be a bit easier. It had to be a cover. It had to be recognisable. It had to be inoffensive but moving and slow. It had to offer people the opportunity to hum it for a few minutes whilst thinking ‘What is this? No but what is it?’ But that’s all gone out the window now. We’ve got classic pop bangers, Andrea Bocelli and everything in between. Plus a handy helping of generic bells and strings.

Oh no we didn’t mean that.

Circling back to this year’s M&S ad… We’ve got the Christmas food. We’ve got a bevvy of relevant celebrities (it’s peak Hannah Waddingham clearly). We’ve got Christmassy stuff like crackers and trees. And friends. And booze. And still, it didn’t click. Because rather than creating new traditions, the ad trashed existing ones – ones that people like. And that was festive fudge too far for the media, and the strikingly small number of critical voices they decided to amplify.

Easy, right?

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