'The weirdest part is the random parents snogging' – PRWeek UK Christmas campaign panel on M&S and Aldi

PRWeek UK has assembled a team of creative comms experts to critique some of this year's major festive campaigns, especially those from the big retailers. Today, offerings from Aldi and Marks & Spencer are put under the microscope.

Panelists (clockwise from top left): Lotte Jones, Julian Obubo, Mandy Sharp, Steve Strickland, Sophie Raine and Andrew Soar
Panelists (clockwise from top left): Lotte Jones, Julian Obubo, Mandy Sharp, Steve Strickland, Sophie Raine and Andrew Soar

Marks & Spencer

The panel is looking at two campaigns from M&S.

The retailer has chosen not to run a Christmas ad on TV for its clothing and homewares arm this year. Instead there's an online video campaign fronted by Holly Willoughby and a radio campaign with executions tailored to different regions across the UK.

'It's on' is designed to put the spotlight on "fun Christmas moments" such as wearing matching pyjamas or putting on a sequin top. There are 10 versions, each cutting together clips showing different products from the range.

For its food offering, M&S has brought on board nine of the UK’s most prominent acting names to voice a series of ads in its classic "This is not just food…" style. This ties in with M&S making donations totalling £2m to a range of charities.

The campaign, created by Grey London, kicks off with a spot that went live on social media and TV on Friday (6 November), in which Olivia Colman, star of The Crown, tempts shoppers with M&S products including a Light Globe Gin Liqueur and Mini Beef & Porcini Yorkshires. A further execution will launch every week from now until the new year, each voiced by a different celebrity and showcasing different items.

Mandy Sharp, founder and chief executive, Tin Man Communications

Non-food: Well, one way or another this ad ain’t gonna get me running into M&S to buy PJs or knitwear for Christmas. The media buying strategy of social and radio makes sense and, of course, Holly always ticks the box for mega-reach as the nation’s sweetheart; but what ‘It’s on’ has to do with tartan pyjamas is beyond me. However, the weirdest part is the random parents snogging. Everyone knows that’s never funny. The saving grace and star of this ad is actually Blondie. The track is a definite earworm, but I fear the visual will be easily forgotten.

Food: Whilst the non-food ads are very 'meh', the food ad is a visual and sonic smorgasbord of festive flavours. It made my mouth water and filled me (and my stomach) with Christmas cheer. Whether it’s the soothing and dulcet tones of Queen Olivia Colman gliding over the chocolate panettone or the fact I was starving when watching it, the filming, production, VO and ‘not just food' thing really works for M&S. I would have quite happily woofed down everything shown on screen in a second. (In fact, I’ve already sampled quite a bit of that Snow Globe Gin Liqueur over the past week, and can confirm it tastes as dreamy as it looks). The impressive charity donations balance the glitzy names and makes the yummy food seem all the more palatable. I like these ads – they’re simple, well-produced and do exactly what they say on the M&S packet. And let’s be honest, Christmas 2020 is going to be all about staying home and stuffing our faces, so making M&S food the hero is a sure-fire winner.

Julian Obubo, brand strategy director and partner, Manifest 

'It's on' is a very bland strapline for Christmas, but considering we're about to have the strangest Christmas ever, I suppose it'll do. I don't think anyone will remember these M&S spots and, frankly, I don't think M&S will care.

Steve Strickland, co-founder, Talker Tailor Trouble Maker

“This isn’t the year for advertising fairy tales,” declares M&S while we welcome the first female, biracial vice-president of the United States, the first openly trans person elected to a state senate [Sarah McBride in Delaware], and Ginger Spice back to our screens with the launch of her new TV series. In other words, get Mariah on and bring back my fairy tales, Mary. Remember when M&S stood for Magic & Sparkle? Why would it use choose now to underplay that, when we – the people – need it so badly? The investment seems to have gone into shop-window advertising to compensate for people not browsing the high street, spotting things in windows or marvelling at food served by friends. That makes sense when we all collectively have no “I’m serving duck”-ing clue what Christmas day is going to look like.

And you’d have to be Joe Wicks not to consider some of its servings, because they’re delectable, and its team of food PRs are some of the best in the business. Olivia Colman is perfect – and catch me at the right time, after the right amount of wine, and there isn’t a thing I wouldn’t buy. But M&S isn’t just food, and when did it become all about pyjamas? When did it give up on everything else? The notion of raising money for charity is nice, and raising money for charities nominated by its colleagues is nicer; but with little consumer engagement, it’s left a bit listless. I’m really hoping the brand still finds room to surprise us in a way that goes beyond the excellent work its PR team is serving us.

Lotte Jones, partner, Freuds

What would Christmas be without some close-up shots of smoked salmon accompanied by music last heard in 1970s soft porn and voiceovers by actors biding their time before they film the next Bond... or the next British Airways in-flight safety video? Nothing, that’s what.

There’s a large part of me screaming “change the record”, but there’s just as big a part of me, breathing a sigh of relief, that draws comfort from the familiarity of the M&S food ads. And for a business that’s had its worst financial results in 94 years, it seems only appropriate that it sticks to what it’s good at on one hand, while going strong on effectiveness with the other. Holly Willoughby is a safe bet to lead campaigns for other areas of its inventory, and taking a digital-first approach makes for a much more personal and savvy route. The balance feels right – give the masses what they want (close-ups of vol-au-vents) and, in the absence of much real-world window shopping this December, get practical with the rest of what M&S has to offer.

Sophie Raine, managing director, consumer brands, Ketchum

The food ads are unmistakably an M&S production, with the grub looking suitably saliva-inducing. The cast of famous narrators, generous charity donation mechanic and the fact that there are nine of the bloody things means the ad is inherently talkable, irrespective of the content. The home and clothing adverts featuring Holly Willoughby are “nice” but also missing the magic synonymous with a fairy tale.

Nonetheless, M&S scores full marks for putting charity at the heart of Christmas (it's pledged to donate £2m to good causes). So while I’m admiring them for doing the right thing I’m also left wondering if COVID-19 has snatched our imagination as well as our freedom? Soz M&S, but I’m craving the Christmas fairy tale that I feel 2020 owes us…

Andrew Soar, creative director, Ogilvy

This Christmas M&S is putting its money on a safe bet: its food. Focusing on risk-free is likely to be a common theme this year with marketing departments wary of not seeming to look profligate or out of touch in search of our pounds and pence. Playing it safe goes against all creative instincts but you understand why so many will go down that road. Betting on your strongest asset will of course reap sales rewards and for M&S, that’s all that matters.

 I like its long-term plan of a new voiceover each week will keep it fresh and as talent goes they spent big on some fantastic names. Olivia Colman, Dame Helen Mirren, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gillian Anderson, Naomie Harris and Tom Hardy are just some of those adding their dulcet tones to a “close up on pudding” or few.

Whilst using talent solely as voiceovers hides the cost to the public; we all know that it’s some budget to pull that cast together!


Longtime brand mascot Kevin the Carrot makes an epic journey home in Aldi’s latest Christmas campaign.

The supermarket’s teaser saw Kevin left adrift after he was ejected from a fighter jet and his parachute went up in flames, in a nod to a scene from 1986's Top Gun. The film, created by McCann UK, picks up after this moment of suspense as the root vegetable desperately tries to make it home to be reunited with his family in time for Christmas.

Lotte Jones, partner, Freuds

Call me a stickler for detail, but it’s been four years since Kevin the Carrot made his Christmas debut and I’m still struggling to get the measure of him. I feel like there’s so much opportunity to make him more of an institution or make us care more by simply giving him more character and personality – instead, he just seems a bit underwhelming. Combine this with the fact that this ad could have been plucked out of any year in history, making zero reference to the reality that many families won’t be able to see each other this year, and it’s been, well, a universally hard one, and it’s fair to say that what this campaign lacks in style, it matches with equally watery substance.

Sophie Raine, managing director, consumer brands, Ketchum

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown rather fond of Kevin the Carrot – the James Bond of the animated vegetable world.

Now there is a lot going on in this ad. To quote a renowned prolific thinker (Karl Pilkington): my eyes have never been this busy. But at least there are bucketfuls of much-needed magic, and it's delivered us Santa! I’ve never been so bloody pleased to see his red face.

Aldi has done a sterling job of sweating the ad amplification playbook – last week was the launch of the Top Gun themed teaser, then the ad dropped, followed by a tonne of root vegetable-related merch available for fans to buy. The result? #KevinTheCarrot organically trending on Twitter in the middle of the presidential election drama (which was also in the middle of a global pandemic and a national lockdown). That’s no small feat. So even if there are some Kev-haters out there, I’m sure Aldi won’t carrot all…

Mandy Sharp, founder and chief executive, Tin Man Communications

Bit controversial, but while I’m a big fan of Aldi and its year-round comms, I’ve never been a fan of the animated Christmas carrot. I don’t care enough about carrots for them to star in a TV ad and, while I know the premise is to celebrate the hidden humble heroes of the Christmas dinner, Kevin doesn’t do it for me. The slightly phallic looking Kev lacks personality and shows zero heroic qualities (am I even saying this about a cartoon carrot?!)

This ad is a like a weird Stickman and ET mash-up. The ‘trying to get home in time for Christmas’ storyline feels overdone, the script a bit too twee and the very red-faced Jim Broadbent as Santa seems bizarrely insincere.

Also, why is there such an obscene amount of food on the table? What group of COVID-friendly six could ever eat that much? The best bit is the Top Gun-inspired teaser that sets up the main ad and explains why a burning Kevin is seen falling through the sky in the opening sequence. Unfortunately, if you’ve missed this precursor, the full ad is a bit of a nonsensical, naff cartoon that my eight-year-old would enjoy. I think it's time for Kevin the Carrot to retire into a nice saucepan of salted, boiling water.

Andrew Soar, creative director, Ogilvy

Aldi and Kevin The Carrot are back providing us all with the only orange thing worth rooting for right now!

A dramatic “will Kevin survive” Top Gun trailer has been followed up with even more cinematic references. The subtle and not so subtle cues to Pirates of the Caribbean, E.T. and Home Alone sees Kevin turn into the James Bond we’ve all been waiting for! The loveable Kevin is supported by the epic casting of Jim Broadbent and Colm Meaney as Santa in the UK and Ireland, respectively.

In a world where so many have been hooked on Emily in Paris (no idea why), this is escapism at its best and with it, Aldi has just raised the Christmas ad bar. The only nagging question is “what happened to turkey?” - surely that’s not it there on the table.

Julian Obubo, brand strategy director and partner, Manifest 

Kevin the Carrot is back! I'm still not sold on him as a mascot, but anything that helps kids eat their vegetables is good thing, right? Although the idea of carrots seemingly celebrating their impending demise is a disturbing thought.

The subtle nods to ET and Top Gun are cute, but will go over the heads of many young folks watching.

I'm a little surprised there wasn't any allusion to how different Christmas might be this year. With most of the ads produced and filmed in the summer and early autumn, my guess is that brands are playing it safe with generic storylines rather than going heavy on COVID. It's probably for the best.

Steve Strickland, co-founder, Talker Tailor Trouble Maker

It takes a brave brand to buy into an entire ad campaign driven by a carrot, but at least when I see this on telly I’ll know that, despite the daily updates, the tweets and the Tories, it really is still Christmas and collectively, if we try to make the best of it, we can still have moments of joy.

My teacher mate said that kids play chase at school but now the kid who is “it” is called coronavirus – so, without wanting to paraphrase Helen Lovejoy: “Won’t some brand please think of the children?” Aldi thankfully has. What I know is if I had seen this ad when I was little – probably between Gladiators and Big Break – I would have shuddered with anticipation and excitement. An emotional Christmas ad, finally.

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