‘It’s just a bit too safe’ – PRWeek Xmas panel: John Lewis, Tesco, McDonald’s, Aldi, Lidl, Argos

PRWeek UK has assembled a team of creative comms experts to critique some of this year’s major festive campaigns.

John Lewis & Partners

John Lewis & Partners’ Christmas campaign is based on the theme of the retailer’s commitment to helping young people in the care system.

The campaign was created by Adam & Eve/DDB with input from partner charities Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland, as well as specialist advisors, throughout the production process.

James Gordon-MacIntosh, co-founder and chief creative officer, Hope&Glory

“John Lewis and Adam & Eve/DDB have nailed it. A huge return to form. I was about to write an article declaring the death of the blockbuster Christmas ad, but this stopped me in my tracks. As John Lewis pretty much invented the narrative Christmas spot craze it has fallen to it this year to continue to be torchbearer for the tradition.

There is so much to admire in this piece of storytelling, but most of all a retail brand’s willingness to create a truly compelling film that raises awareness, not of its festive range, but which takes to the platform it has built for itself and surfaces a societal issue and provokes a conversation. Because for all that the nation might be experiencing tough times, there are always those who have it tougher.

The brand’s willingness to remind its audience of that is both brave and embraces the fact that with the great power it has built comes great responsibility – a responsibility it has wielded admirably this year. It’s read the room and created something that really will get the nation talking.”

Lora Martyr, creative director, Taylor Herring

“And they’re back. After a few stagnant years, this feels fresh – but with all of the classic tropes expected of a John Lewis ad.

Given the current economic and political climate, as well as JL not exactly being known for value, it’s a smart move to put CSR front and centre. The story is simple and touching. Personal opinion – I’m not sure about the soundtrack this year, but I’m sure many will love it. 

I’ve noted on other ads, the production difficulties with the warm weather – in being able to achieve cold and festive external shots – so shout out to whoever thought to add that little bit of frost and a smattering of garden snow.”

Suzanne Haysler, head of consumer, The PHA Group

“It must be so hard for John Lewis to try to top itself every year – especially as the John Lewis Christmas advert is one of the most eagerly anticipated each year. 

While this isn’t my favourite ever ad from them, it is still great! I really loved its genuine purpose and I think that this point of difference helped it stand out among the cheesier ads this year.

Given the current climate it’s definitely the right move to be more CSR-focused at Christmas, and it surprises me that more brands haven’t gone down that route as well.”

Oli Miller, associate creative director, Pangolin 

“Here it is. The ad. What can I say? It got to me. As soon as you see that clipboard it all comes into focus.

The advert has its flaws: the falls don’t look that convincing, and I personally feel the cover isn’t a bullseye, which is a pity, because it’s a classic. I honestly thought it was Mike Flowers, and you know you're going to see this quite frequently for the next month, so the impact may start to fade on viewers.

But outside of that, I find it hard to fault this one. It’s not flashy, with barely a product in sight, the acting feels honest, there’s gentle humour and the reveal makes you root for the whole cast. Oddly, what I particularly like is the Dad isn’t an expert by the end – that sort of small detail keeps the spot real.

The real test of this piece will be the brand’s commitment to the cause. It’s such an important issue – I really just hope for John Lewis, it’s not just for Christmas.”


McDonald’s

McDonald’s has introduced an “Alternative Christmas list” to shine a light on what is really important during the festive period.

Created by Leo Burnett, the 90-second spot is at the heart of the push, introducing viewers to a young boy called Alfie.

James Gordon-MacIntosh

“I really don’t know where to go with this one. On the one hand, the sentiment is all rather lovely – kids want family togetherness at Christmas more than anything and McDonald’s is there to bring families together. But honestly, this feels like a pretty big claim for the fast-food brand.

Somehow the whole thing feels just so sentimental that it doesn’t fit with the brand it’s promoting – like the creatives had the idea for another of their clients’ Christmas campaigns but it got ditched at the tissue meeting, so they decided to dust it down and flog it to McDonald’s.

I don’t want to sound like a Grinch, but the whole thing feels strangely stilted and inauthentic – as much as I admire the message contained within.”

Scott Dimbleby

“This year’s John Lewis commercial is a beautiful, heartwarming vignette, a return to form. Only John Lewis had nothing to do with it. You see, this year it was made by someone else: McDonald's – who, lest we forget to make burgers and fries, has captured the Christmas lightning in a bottle with a delightful story. ‘The List’ tells the tale of a little boy making his Christmas list; we never see what’s on it, but it spirals out of control like one of those unfathomably long contracts the devil makes you sign.

In the end he loses it to the capricious British weather but is left with a single page, reminding us, the viewer, that what really matters is family. All soundtracked by a suitably plinky-plonky version of Only You by Yazoo.

It’s got everything you want in a Christmas ad: a self-contained tale highlighting the real meaning of the holidays, charm, gorgeous colour grading and an acoustic version of a pop song. On paper, it’s a soulless exercise in box-ticking; in practice, it delivers a spectacular goal. Right, I’m off to John Lewis, errr I mean McDonald’s. Wonderful.”

Suzanne Haysler

“This advert is not one of the more memorable from McDonald’s – I think the message is nice, but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the crowd and it’s just a bit too safe generally. 

It is good, though, to see McDonald’s continue its #ReindeerReady campaign, as it ties the brand and Christmas together well and I thought the music choice was nice.”

Oli Miller

“McDonald’s at Christmas – it’s pretty straightforward: the menu gets a festive makeover, different cheese, some sort of sweet sauce, and mincemeat in an apple pie crust. But, essentially, business as usual. 

McDonald’s doesn’t really need a Christmas ad. Apparently, this is an unpopular opinion, but to me, this feels a bit like an ad for the sake of one.”


Aldi

Aldi has kicked off its Christmas campaign with a teaser that pays homage to a classic 1998 Nike World Cup ad, signalling the anticipated return of Kevin the Carrot for a seventh chapter.

‘Feast of football’ was created by McCann UK. It was directed by Tracey Cooper through Paz Parasmand. It will run across Aldi’s YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook channels. Aldi’s media agency is UM.

James Gordon-MacIntosh

“Once upon a time Harvey Nichols made a series of postcards for its food hall featuring Wayne Pruney, Tuna Thurman, Pea Diddy and assorted other celebrity puns. Apparently, they were almost sued. That said, Aldi – as Cuthbert will attest – is no stranger to the inside of a courtroom, so perhaps it’s game for a battle with a host of international footballers – not to mention easyJet – referenced in their sort-of-Christmas-sort-of-World-Cup ad. 

And I applaud its bravery, because it’s created a pastiche (or homage, perhaps it will claim when the writ lands) to one of the all-time great football ads – Nike’s Airport film.

The pun-laden references are not entirely related to football fayre but this is nevertheless a pretty joyful piece of advertising. The humour is spot-on, the backing track is a belter for those of a certain age, and the recreation of an iconic sporting ad featuring brand mascot Kevin brought back all of the excitement of World Cup advertising past.”

Scott Dimbleby

“Despite confused soundtracks, with Serge Mendes swapped out for Elvis, this very obvious Nike pastiche left me with a huge smile on my face. Peppered with food puns galore, including the glorious Beth Swede, as well Peter Drury on commentary, this spot is anything but corny – get it?

Clearly a huge amount of thought has gone into carrying on Kevin’s continuing fable, including an evergreen Home Alone reference right at the very end – which, it turns out, is actually an Easter egg for Aldi’s OTHER Christmas ad, set to drop in the coming days.

For me, Aldi is leading this year’s Christmas ad battle by quite some distance.”

Lora Martyr

“The production value of this campaign – wow. First the teaser – unlike most others which are an isolated scene from the final ad, this was a completely different video, setting up the following narrative, but also paying homage to the World Cup with a laden-with-vegetable-puns take on the acclaimed 2002 Nike ad.

Then, the ad itself, taking one of the most famous festive films, and arguably the most famous Kevin and parodying it underneath a short poem. I’m not the biggest fan of Kevin the Carrot if I’m being honest, and I actually preferred the teaser. But the craft that went into this ad is seriously impressive.”

Suzanne Haysler

“After first appearing in Aldi’s Christmas campaign back in 2016, Kevin the Carrot is back once again and the footballing puns are magnificent. Poking fun at a winter World Cup in Qatar, we see Kevin, among other vegetable-inspired characters, as he makes his way through the airport in a bid to catch a ‘peasyJet’ flight.

Just as Asda took inspiration from Elf this year, Aldi has done the same with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. But, despite being topical, it didn’t elicit any real emotion and left me feeling quite unbothered. However, football purists are sure to love the link back to the iconic Nike “samba ball” advert.”

Oli Miller

“Got to be impressed that Aldi has somehow managed to turn a carrot into a recognisable mascot. If you don’t like puns, this one isn’t for you; I do, so I thoroughly enjoyed the first use of Ronaldi et al. The ad sets its stall out from the beginning and has fun with it.

Fair play to whoever thought up a Nike Brazil Airport/Home Alone crossover. Certainly ticks the ‘unexpected’ box.”


Lidl

Lidl Bear is the face of Lidl’s new donation initiative, which encourages customers to drop off unopened toys for children who need support. Created by Accenture Song, the spot opens with a dad accidentally shrinking his Lidl jumper in the wash.

It was directed by David Kerr through Hungry Man.

James Gordon-MacIntosh

“I’m not really sure what this ad is telling me. So I feel like I’m going to have to wait for the Lidl Bear to start appearing in my local store so that I can pick one up as a feel-good stocking filler with proceeds going to Neighbourly – charity brand partner of choice for both of the discounters featured in this roundup.

Standalone, this is an ad where there is really very little to take about Lidl’s festive offer from its ad. I’m just not sure what the message is supposed to be – and I had to read about the campaign to understand what it was all about. That’s not really the point of supermarket Christmas advertising, is it?”

Scott Dimbleby

We never intended to create a Christmas character says this ad, followed by another 55 seconds of… attempting to create a Christmas character. Far too clever for its own good, this story follows a teddy bear wearing a shrunken Lidl jumper, now transported into a world of fame and fortune. 

Before long Lidl Bear is doing lines of coke off a stripper’s arse and is caught propositioning an air hostess. Lidl Bear is Cancelled with a capital C; in fact, if you freeze frame this at 33 seconds you do get the headline ‘BEAR CANCELLED’ on screen for a split second. It’s a hilarious concept, admittedly – and one that would have been interesting to see committed-to a bit more. So why doesn’t this quite connect, then? Well, when you do Christmas, you have to be earnest. It’s an unwritten rule.

The ‘meta’ nature of Lidl’s offering, essentially making-an-ad-about-making-an-ad, is a step too far for me. There’s a good idea here, but it got lost in showing how clever we are rather than grabbing the audience by the heart.

Lora Martyr

“I did not expect to like this as much as I did. It took a number of witty turns that completely blindsided me. The fact that this bear ends up essentially on a rock and roll bender before he comes back (and I hope to god is put in the washing machine) – is hilarious.

The sign-off is brilliant – a big hug, tasty food, narrative complete. Bish, bash, bosh. They’ve taken all the classic tropes and stuck two fingers up to them, in a really well-balanced way. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s really unexpected. Big fan. The team should turn the comments on on YouTube.”

Suzanne Haysler

“This did bring a smile to my face, I’ll admit it. The expressionless Lidl bear facing the harsh realities of what can happen when fame and fortune get in the way was definitely amusing and a feel-good message for Christmas that I think family audiences will enjoy. I definitely wasn’t blown away, but it was a good effort!”

Oli Miller

“The speed of this story is pretty frenetic, with the pitfalls of fame for the Lidl bear coming thick and fast. It’s a fun spot, and showcases the Lidl Christmas offering while not going on about it. People know that Lidl and Aldi represent the greatest value of the big supermarket chains, so no real need to point that out here.

I feel this is one for a younger audience, which I respect – it doesn’t all have to be high drama for grown-ups.”


Tesco

Tesco is tapping into the nation's commitment to celebrating the festive season despite the cost-of-living crisis as it reveals its mission to spread joy as part of its Christmas campaign.

The campaign is based on the retailer's research, which found that 87 per cent of people said Christmas brings them joy. The campaign was created by Marc Rayson and Callum Prior and directed by Fredriek Bond through MJZ production.

James Gordon-MacIntosh

“Making party political broadcast references probably seemed like a fun idea when this ad was conceived. Fast-forward six months and I’m not sure, with the comings and goings and general levels of chaos, that the choice was the right one.

This campaign is fine. It does the job. But it’s like a Christmas ad from pre-John Lewis blockbuster days (something of a running theme this year when supermarkets have gone back to basics). Credit must be given for coming up with a new conceit – the party political broadcast – as a way of landing some Christmas range and value messages.

But I worry that this feels like a campaign the brand will struggle to bring to life beyond a TV spot. Relative to last year’s outings for the UK’s biggest retailer, it’s a solid piece of work that will do the hard-nosed commercial job it needs to and a little more.”

Lora Martyr

“It’s in your face, it’s fun, and the ‘bin day’ joke got me. 

Number one, The Christmas Party is a great, simple pun. The style of the ad as an (uncharacteristically honest) election broadcast takes a clean swipe at the political turmoil of the past months – year… years? – in true British ‘you have to laugh at it’ style, but it’s also scripted carefully to sidestep anything too contentious. 

Stirring VO from Simon Farnaby telling us of the importance of hats on dogs. Doesn’t fade into the background in a very crowded market.

Suzanne Haysler

“A nice premise, but I’m not a fan of this one at all. The idea of Tesco forming a Christmas Party to bring the nation joy during hard times is a bit of an empty statement as I can’t see how it will tangibly deliver that other than good deals in store, so, like many other party pledges before this, it feels like an empty promise.

It is ironic that, for an ad that promises to #StandForJoy, it left me feeling decidedly flat. It was neither funny nor emotive and, for me, this is a total flop. The less said, the better.”

Oli Miller

“This is a pretty by-the-numbers supermarket Christmas advert - tables full of food that would require an outside caterer, people walking down supermarket aisles in unison, children laughing at the expense of adults – sure. And why not? It’s not harming anyone.

This advert does feel like it may have suffered from some late pushback on the narrative. The whole party political broadcast narrative loses steam pretty quickly, even with the incredibly likeable Simon Farnaby narrating.

What this advert does very well is deliver messaging. Throughout, the brand drives home the possibility of an affordable family Christmas without being condescending – no easy task.

Did have to rewind to confirm that the snowman didn’t have his middle fingers up though.”


Argos

Created by Chris Clarke and Matthew Moreland, and directed by Gary Freedman through MJZ. ‘Avalanche’ opens with a couple preparing to host a Christmas get-together. It then cuts to hundreds of people making their way to the couple’s house.

Lora Martyr

“Simple insight. An army of extended friends and family come charging down the road making the tableware shake, reminiscent of the T. rex scene in Jurassic Park.

The babies, the squirty cream, the horror! The ad speaks to the truth that Christmas is often not the picture-perfect scene the media portrays; it’s messy, overcrowded and often pretty stressful (especially if you’re hosting). There are a couple of nice jokes in there and some relevant product placement. It could have potentially been quicker, but it has a nice tone and a modern take on Christmas.

As with most ads filmed this year, there’s been a struggle to get a truly festive feel with any outdoor shots as the weather has been so bananas... I feel for the crew!”

Suzanne Haysler

“Where I think most retailers have opted for a more muted approach to their adverts this year, Argos went for the opposite.

We can all resonate with the chaos that Christmas gatherings can bring and perhaps it’s something we should celebrate after several lockdowns. However, under the surface I thought this advert was a little bit boring and forgettable among the other Christmas ads I’ve seen – it had very little depth and no real emotion to it whatsoever.”

Oli Miller

“Argos ties together the good intention of inviting people around with the classic apprehension that you’re grossly underprepared, probably never truer than at Christmas. It manages to make this feel low-key and intimate, with jumps back to the couple at home juxtaposed with the large-scale horde bearing down on them.

Product is integrated pretty seamlessly, the ad strikes the right balance on reality vs Christmas opulence and one shoehorned-in pun isn’t going to hurt anyone. Also worth mentioning: Argos branding is pretty clever, the quick shot of the website is all this really needs.”


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