Sainsbury's St Nick, Tesco, Debenhams, KFC and McNuggets-eating reindeer - PRWeek panel on Christmas campaigns

The final instalment of what our Christmas creatives panel had to say about some of the best (and worst) campaigns this festive season.

Sainsbury’s

The Sainsbury's Christmas campaign leans heavily on Oliver and other classic tales, weaving the supermarket's heritage to reinvent the story of Saint Nicholas. Based in Dickensian London (actually shot in a Romanian studio), a young chimney sweep called Nicholas is wrongly accused of stealing a clementine that has fallen off a Sainsbury’s barrow display on the street and is banished from the city. Mary Ann Sainsbury, who saw that Nick was framed, brings him home, giving a bag full of clementines. Nicholas then secretly drops fruits into the socks of his chimney sweep friends, before – dressed in a red coat and Santa-style hat – striding off into a snowy sunset toward reindeer.

Julian Obubo: I  never thought I needed to see the Santa Claus origin story, but Sainsbury's has delivered a stunning short film about Nick the Sweeper that absolutely gripped me. Yes, it's a little corny; yes, there's a scene where a character inexplicably bites through the skin of a tangerine; but this high-budget mini-movie is one of the best this season. 

James Gordon-MacIntosh: It's been a big year for Sainsbury's. It hit the big one-five-oh and has done it in some considerable style. The team has knocked out some golden moments, what with a visit from the Queen, community projects and some top-quality pop-ups along the way. Oh, and a fly-on-the-wall documentary in primetime, from which it has emerged brilliantly. Now it has taken that celebration of history into its Christmas ad and it's paid off handsomely. If you want an emotional response from a family audience, this film nails it. It won the prize in my household for "the ad that made my wife cry" (every year, without fail, one of the retailers does the trick). Golden Christmas fayre. I'm off to buy some clementines. 

Ottilie Ratcliffe: This one comes very close to being great, but is let down by the casting and the rubbish dialogue. I love the Dickensian theme because it makes sense in terms of Sainsbury's brand positioning and heritage, and I love the Father Christmas origin story because it's actually very logical that the man who visits via a chimney might have formerly been a chimney sweep. All the different elements of the narrative fall into place in a satisfying way (red cloak frosted with snow, reindeer in the wild, Naughty List kept by a horrible workhouse owner, socks hanging up to dry, etc). And, there are some really nice moments to make the viewer chuckle, such as: 'I caught him orange-handed' and 'Zero Emissions' being written on the horse and carriage. But I'm distracted from all this by the relentless sycophantic smiling and winking of Mrs Sainsbury – who is lit differently from the rest of the cast, which is annoying – and lazy lines such as "If you can’t do something special for someone at Christmas, when can you?" So, it's a balancing act. Does the GREAT reveal at the end make up for the overly-saccharine points of the story? Yes – just.  

Leila Mountford: Sainsbury's has claimed the genesis of Father Christmas… and got away with it. This ad is an example of how to perfectly blend your brand with a cultural reference. From the festive clementines that gently nod to Sainbury's orange, to the tenderness of Mrs Sainsbury's performance, it is a story enchantingly told. I would love to see part two next year featuring Nicholas the Sweep creating a home at the North Pole and meeting the helper elves. Who knows, the tale could continue for years with Nicholas eventually meeting the daughter of Mrs Sainsbury, falling in love with her and going on to have a wedding fully catered for by the grocer family.  

Shirin Majid: When my Dad saw this ad he said: "Sainsbury's? I thought it was a film." Pretty much. It's a short film that puts the brand's fresh product at the centre of the story. It's got the nostalgia of Oliver Twist, one of my favourite films growing up, and the modernity of some quirky characters à la Jean-Pierre Jeunet. For me, it didn't need the force-fed legend of Santa. It could have just been a charming story of changed fate. Besides that and the fact that I'm still reeling from the Fagin-type biting straight through that orange peel, it's entertaining, delivers a solid brand message, and adds to the collective Christmas spirit.

Andrew Soar: Sainsbury's has gone full Dickensian with its 'Nicholas the Sweep' ad campaign, merging fact (its first store origins in 1869) with fiction (the wrongly accused chimney sweep, Nicholas). The original story is packed to the brim with nods to Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol with the dreary, grey setting only permeated by the bright orange clementines. High on production value and beautifully shot, this is Sheffield Short Film Festival-level, and there are some lovely touches. The 'zero emissions' signs on the horse are a particular favourite, while the posters of a figure and lightbulb is a nice nod to last year's 'Plug Boy'. Unlike last year's romp and GIF-fest, this is a return to the traditional from Sainsbury's, which needed to tell its 150th anniversary story. It was not the best of times, it was not the worst of times.

Debenhams

Debenhams is celebrating the winter season with a campaign that features reality TV star and singer Fleur East. Created in-house and set to East’s new single Size, the main spot brings to light easy gift solutions for picky peers, including aftershave, winter hats and the classic chocolate bar. It also promotes the retailer's alphabet shop, which has a range of items with letters on them.

Andrew Soar: With any business going through hard times, you are either going to get an ad that is big, bold and disruptive to act as a shake-up, or just plain safe. Not surprisingly, Debenhams has opted for the latter. Enter the ad equivalent of a celeb-backed PR launch, with Fleur East going all Dennis Waterman. East is not only the star attraction as the fairy godmother in the ad, but "writes the theme tune and sings the theme tune" too. It is very much a small step from last year's similar premise about gifting, so feels tried and tested. Nothing to hate, but nothing to love, either. This will be forgotten in a day, just like vacuous celeb picture-story launches. 

Shirin Majid: It's not in the same league as your John Lewis ads, but it does what it says on the tin. It feels current (maybe a bit 2018) with Pinterest-perfect colourways and emerald velvet. It delivers the '3-for-2' message. It's well styled, well cast. That little shoulder dance is memorable. It's safe. But is it actually? Can an ad like this deliver for a brand in Christmas 2019?

Leila Mountford: Well that was boring, and if you compare this to the Boots ad, the insight is the same, but Boots does it better. I know that not every Christmas ad needs to be highly emotive or cost a fortune to make, but the sentiment in this one says: "The people you are buying gifts for are tricky and if you don't get it right, they will be grumpy and ungrateful." The past few weeks we've seen ads that promote the spirit of Christmas (caring for loved ones, being kind, spending time with people you love); in contrast, this one feels distastefully consumerist. 

James Gordon-MacIntosh: Debenhams is in a tricky old spot. Appealing to everyone on the high street these days means you run the risk of appealing to no one in particular. But this does a cracking job of landing a refreshed brand image, putting product at the forefront and promising to solve gift-giving dilemmas. It's glossy, it's bright, it's fashion-led. It's splendidly diverse in its casting – not something I'd expect of Debenhams, perhaps – that makes it feel bang up-to-date-relevant. And yet there's a Generation Game reference that will fire the neurons of its older customers. It does a good job of updating the image of one of the less-loved high-street generalists. 

Ottilie Ratcliffe: Hmm. Technically, this is a good ad. There's some punchy wordplay landing the key messages of the brand, there are gift ideas showcased throughout, cute babies and a dog to bring some festive cheer, celeb cameos, nice visuals that complement the OOH ads – it's all tick, tick, tick. However, the tinny music and production line of gifts makes it so easy to tune out. It's the kind of ad that you're staring at the bottom right corner, waiting for permission to Skip Ad. There's no story or emotion here, it feels very low-budget in terms of production, and it just cannot compete with the other Christmas ads. 

Julian Obubo: Could this be the most forgettable Christmas ad this season? Probably.

McDonald’s 

Ellie wants to play a game of 'reindeers' but her older sister, Jenny, is not interested and slams the door shut, reminding Ellie: "You’re not a reindeer – grow up!" Dad feels sorry for Ellie – who is sad and sitting by herself in a snowy back yard. Suddenly, a little reindeer jumps out to play with her. When Ellie runs out of 'Reindeer Treats' to feed Archie the reindeer, the family sets off to McDonald's to buy more. At the Drive Thru, the animation turns into real life – and we learn that Archie is actually the family pet dog, dressed in reindeer antlers and a tutu.

Ottilie Ratcliffe: There's an echo of the Frozen storyline here, a big sister refusing to play with her younger sibling – a device that immediately makes the ad feel familiar. Through the storyline of a dad giving the family dog antlers so he can be a reindeer, you can see the very simple premise of a little bit of imagination turning the festive season magical for children – exactly what McDonald's is trying to achieve through its free Reindeer Treats on Christmas eve. The clever bit of this ad is the lack of mention of another parent, hinting at family heartbreak at some point, which just throws the youngest child's loneliness, the elder sister’s crabbiness and the dad’s kindness into sharper relief, dialling the emotion up several notches without being crass. This is a massive win for Maccie D's, one of the most heartwarming of all the Christmas offerings this year. 

Andrew Soar: For the third year in a row, McDonald's is back with its 'Reindeer Ready' message. Sticking to a blueprint has allowed the marketing team to get Ronald increasing its budget year on year. 'Carrot stick' (2017) was upgraded to last year's high on CGI attempt and now, this year's tale of Archie the Reindeer mixes stunning (and expensive) animation with a live-action ending. Unlike most trilogies, the latest attempt is far superior, its excellent, heartfelt story of Ellie and her imaginary reindeer (which turns out to the Archie the dog) has melted the nation's hearts. As well as last year's big PR hit of free bags of carrots for reindeer on Christmas Eve, this campaign also includes a range of merch and Snap filters. In a world of Fer Machado-helmed Burger King greatness this is a good attempt, but it is not quite 'Whopper detour' or 'Burn this ad' is it?

James Gordon-MacIntosh: The work in this is remarkable. The story well-wrought. They've maxxed out on cuteness. But this all just felt too saccharine sweet. Stunning piece of film-making, though.

Shirin Majid: It's like they took a bunch of Christmas ads and put them in a blender. It's another case of feels-like-I've-seen-this-before. You know that the reindeer is the dog, you know that the grumpy teenager will eventually come round, you know it'll all resolve in the Drive Thru. Bah, hamburger! If it had dug a bit deeper to find a new emotional insight about family, it might've told a fresher story. But despite all that… it's still cute. It's still Christmassy. And I'm not mad at it. 

Tesco

Tesco's Christmas ad takes a magical journey through the past century as it continues its 100th-anniversary celebrations. It's a nostalgic look back at key moments and figures from British culture, but with a festive twist. A Tesco delivery driver is the star of the spot, to show how the supermarket has "helped deliver Christmas for 100 years". Holiday magic triggers a time warp that takes him through past decades to deliver festive food to 1919 London, Winston Churchill, the Queen, 1980s/90s game show Bullseye, a rave and other parties before returning home. It is set to Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes. 

Shirin Majid: Who doesn't love a Back to the Future reference? Tesco kept it real, relatable and likeable, from the cast to the music and all the nostalgic touches. The product is at the centre of the story and integrated nicely throughout, and it tells the 100-year anniversary story without being gimmicky. Overall, it's a lovely little watch that gets you in the Christmas spirit.

Andrew Soar: Another retailer, another anniversary. For its centenary, Tesco has dreamed up the worst-ever instalment of Back to the Future; a time-travelling food-delivery driver. While this might be no Marty McFly epic, the escapades of the driver who nearly escaped a huge accident in the present is a fun journey through British nostalgia. It follows the work the retailer has been doing all year, using iconic characters of yesteryear – Mr Motivator, Mr Blobby, Des Lynam, Morph and, of course, Mel B – in its activity. Much like "the sham of a mockery, of a mockery of a sham" around Scary Spice, this ad has its own cringeworthy moment – a laughable 'lookalike' of Bullseye's late, great host Jim Bowen (if you haven’t noticed it, check it out when they go to the van). The ad is festive, fun and frivolous and the brand has taken that into its PR approach, with the van from the ad appearing on the roof of a thatched house in Cheshire last week. Nice, not notable.

Ottilie Ratcliffe: This is one of those ads that's packed with so many little Easter eggs (festive ones) that you give it your full attention every time it comes on the TV and exclaim when you recognise cultural throwbacks. You can imagine a load of creatives sat around a table brainstorming how to show Tesco's contribution to Christmas over 100 years and someone having a eureka moment over a time-travelling delivery van. Cue cheers all around and party poppers going off – because that’s exactly how creative concept meetings go. There's no simpler way to tell the story. It's a solid effort and a good ad.

Julian Obubo: Who would have thought two of the largest retailers would reference Dickensian London in their ads. Tesco went heavy on nostalgia this year, but it all comes off as very inward-looking – which I guess is to be expected when you're celebrating 100 years. With Tesco's budgets, I feel it could have made something with a stronger narrative and with lots of sentimentality. It didn't forget the iconic Christmas-table shot, though.

James Gordon-MacIntosh: Time-travelling is something of a theme this year as two of our biggest retailers celebrate big birthdays. Tesco's effort – with its Back to the Future delivery driver – is rather more product-centric than Sainsbury's Dickensian story. Perhaps that’s what makes it feel less like a "big festive ad" and more like… well… an ad. If it weren't for the fact that it's November, we probably wouldn't even be talking about it.

WWF

Leila Mountford: "We want an ad like the orangutan one from Greenpeace and Iceland last year, but not good."  Emotionless voiceover and misleading message. We won't solve the destruction of habitats by adopting jaguars, even though it is a nice thing to do. 

James Gordon-MacIntosh: This is strong stuff. Amazon rainforest burning. Youth protest. Global warming. Climate change. The perils of industrialisation. It's an ad with reference to the big issues of the moment. I just wonder whether the call-to-action sits comfortably in this context? It's a creative that feels more Extinction Rebellion than "adopt a jaguar for Christmas".

Shirin Majid: This ad makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, makes my heart sink, and gives me a tiny glimmer of hope all in one go. And that's exactly what it should do. Outside the twinkling, perfumed unreality of the Christmas ad bubble, there is the smoke-tinged, real-world impact of climate change and deforestation on wildlife. It's exactly the kind of darkness we want to escape from, if only for a moment, as we cuddle up to our nearest and dearest at Christmas time. But what this ad manages to do is give you a way in, not a way out. It's a reminder and it offers a solution (even if it's a small one). It's also child-friendly enough – not too scary and not too mild – to be a good talking point and learning opportunity for young children.

Pepsi Max

James Gordon-MacIntosh: Still the choice of the next generation, this does a perfectly OK job of positioning against Pepsi's big red competitor. Surfing with LED boards in the snow with your mates certainly runs counter to the rosy-cheeked Santa and smiling families. By the same token, I sometimes wonder whether this is a brand that could do a better job if it stopped referencing against its competitor and got on with standing for something more than "the cultural alternative to Coke".

Shirin Majid: The best part of this ad is reminding people to recycle in the endframe. I like the idea of getting people to try a new Christmas tradition, but LED surfboards? Why so try hard? The night surfing is visually appealing, so perhaps it could've worked if it was crafted differently – close-ups, more build-up – and with a new sound and a less extreme voiceover.

KFC

Andrew Soar: Following on from last year’s brilliant Turkey vs Chicken Western, KFC is back pitting the chicken against its drier poultry cousin. KFC is never going to serve up a tearjerker (that only happens when they run out of chicken) so, this year’s mini variety meal of short comicbook content is perfect. The five 10-second clips show the trials and tribulations of turkey cooking with a wonderfully dry sense of humour, wishing the audience 'good luck' with their own preparations on Christmas Day (when its stores are closed). The concept is strong, but the videos are fun not funny, humour not hysterics and, in a sea of content, these will need to be seen a lot to stand the test of time.

Favourite Christmas ad this year

Leila Mountford: IKEA. Original, entertaining and hit the shareable sweet spot.  It was also the only ad that family in Belgium and South Africa had seen (and loved) without me sending it to them.

Andrew Soar: Argos. It was a flip of a coin for me between Argos and IKEA. The latter will get enough votes, so I am going to give it to Argos' banging drumming duo, crowdsurfing teddy bear and the 'Book of Dreams'.

James Gordon-MacIntosh: IKEA. It's built on a brilliant insight that seems to have struck a chord. The craft is top-class. And the music. The full-length version of the tune was played out on Greg James' BBC Radio One Breakfast Show this week. When does that happen? It's bonkers. But brilliant.

Ottilie Ratcliffe: IKEA. The edgy figurines beat the cute dragons and reindeer dogs this year – sorry Edgar. 

Julian Obubo: Argos. It managed to make an ad you'll actually want to sit down and watch every time it comes on. Simple narrative, great music, easy on the hard sell. It's beautiful. 

It looks like IKEA has just won Christmas from Argos, both were wonderful spots. PRWeek would like to thank our Christmas creatives panel.

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