Selling a dream while living a nightmare – campaign trends in the strangest Christmas ever

Halls thoroughly decked with holly. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Sad girls with ukuleles mournfully strumming their way through tear-jerking covers of 80s pop songs…

Selling a dream while living a nightmare – campaign trends in the strangest Christmas ever

Yes, it’s November – and that can only mean Christmas ads are here.

They’re the gift that keeps giving for clients, agencies and viewers alike. I’m not going to review each of 2020’s offerings individually, as that’s been done elsewhere. Instead, let’s have a look at the themes that might tell us something about this most unusual of plague years.

Muted emotions

The impact of the pandemic means the usual hyper-emotive Christmas ads would feel out of whack – 55,000 deaths trumps an old man who lives on the moon in the sorrow stakes.

Instead, the ads that resonate most with the spirit of the times embrace our new normal. John Lewis told small stories of inclusion and community, effectively riffing on the good vibes of early 2020 to tug the heartstrings. Tesco’s 'No Naughty List' spot makes us all feel better about our lockdown let-downs. And Very got real with a funny, relatable ad that could’ve been scripted by Craig Cash.

Ads with purpose

If the usual players didn’t make your eyes leak, check out the first Christmas ad from Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity. Sob.

Now, wipe your tears away and consider that GOSH, The Body Shop, Papa John’s and Joules – to name just a few – put social and environmental causes at the heart of their messaging. It’s long been known that doing good helps the bottom line, but with values-driven Gen Zs and millennials growing in spending power, we can expect to see more of this sort of marketing all year round.

For me? You shouldn’t have...

It’s been a conceptually difficult year for FMCG brands. The cheeky tone that drives sales of chocolate and pop doesn’t work when everyone is at home baking sourdough, eating their artisanal feelings.

So you can’t blame Walkers for wanting a slice of festive cheer. To paraphrase Noddy Holder: it’s Criiiiiiiiiispmas!

But is LadBaby bellowing about sausage roll crisps through your letterbox really meant to raise our spirits? Or is it a warning to avoid leaving the house this Christmas – for only horror stalks this wintry land, and it tastes like pig meat.

What next for 2021?

In case you missed it, we’ve spent most of 2020 stuck at home, wandering forlornly between the same few rooms like pallid Dickensian ghosts. That’s made ads this year subdued as brands grappled with selling a dream while we live through a nightmare.

But every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So I predict that by this time next year, we’ll be swimming in the most festive set of ads possible – a bonanza of “Let’s make this the best Christmas ever!” joy leavened with pleas to help those who aren’t out of the woods yet.

Or someone will have licked a diseased platypus and infected us all with Marsupial Fever. Classic 2021...

Warren Johnson is global chief executive of W


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