RIP: the Christmas commercial (2011-2018)

It may be no bad thing for our industry if the big-budget Christmas ad is no longer with us.

Believers in karma will delight in the fact that it has taken precisely seven years for "The Christmas Commercial" to become first "a thing", then a monster and – finally – to eat itself.

Yes, it has been seven years since John Lewis weaponised this previously unremarkable campaign season with "The long wait". Many advertisers have followed in its snowy footprints ever since, hurling aside the tenets they hold dear at other times of the year, from consistency and differentiation to an appropriate ratio of production to media. In thrall to the apparent alchemy of the Christmas commercial, expectations are ratcheted ever higher, even as creative content reverts to the mean.

At risk of being a bit humbug, some of us have been waiting for the house of cards to tumble for a while now. It has been a long wait.

"A time of year when brands can end up adrift on a sea of sameness", I wrote in November 2011. "The strategic premise of some of Britain’s biggest advertisers can currently be summarised as: ‘We sell things’ meets ‘It’s Christmas!’," I opined five years later.  

Yes, the Christmas commercial dancefloor is smaller than a ferry disco and advertisers have been bumping into one another on it for years now. So it was only a matter of time before someone actually made the same ad as someone else, rather than just falling foul of the befuddled viewer’s misattribution.

That it was Sainsbury’s that found itself minus chair when the music stopped, its innocent ad in fact a retread of a commercial from outside the Christmas commercial oeuvre, is by the by. It’s a time of year when Asda looks like Argos. This looks like that. (And Sainsbury’s more egregious error was The James Corden Christmas Commercial from a couple of years ago, anyway.)

It all could have been so different. Look back at "The long wait" (no, really, do) and you find deft storytelling, a fabulously contrary soundtrack and perfectly pitched performance. But, best of all, you will find that hen’s tooth of the Christmas advertising season: a strategy. And not just any old strategy, but one that John Lewis could own over time, thanks to its breadth and depth of merchandise: thoughtful giving. ("A towering example of how to do it", as I said at the time.)

It’s perhaps no coincidence that our out-of-favour high-street retailers and our margin-cramped grocers have looked neediest these past few Christmases, betting the house on "winning the season" rather than addressing underlying problems, their sights apparently trained on the battle rather than the war. In fact, the winners at Christmas tend to be those trading best going into the period, just as logic would suggest.

The trading difficulties enjoyed by the likes Debenhams and House of Fraser won’t be reversed by their Christmas campaigns and, in fact, there’s a strong argument that their millions should be spent elsewhere, at least for now. Largesse in advertising can look misplaced when stores are shabby and your customers’ purse strings are stretched.

At Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, its marketing resource will be better spent even this week working out how to position Asda rather than bemoaning its fate at this year’s festival of emotional advertising. (Note to all: emotional advertising is for life, not just for Christmas.)

There will be commercials next Christmas, of course. But, contrary as it may seem, it may be no bad thing for our industry and its advertisers if our bloated belief in the Christmas commercial passes through.

Laurence Green is executive partner at MullenLowe London

This article first appeared on PRWeek sister title Campaign

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