Holiday Ads in the UK: Striking A Delicate Balance

Private: Sofia Romano

Senior Account Executive, UK

For as long as we can remember, there’s been one seasonal craze that never fails to excite the average British household: elaborate holiday adverts that fully embrace the festive season.

We’re infatuated with moving stories that capture the essence of the season, particularly if they use fluffy animals or sad stories with heart-warming endings. Dominated for many years first by Coca-Cola and then by John Lewis, each year Brits wait in anticipation to see if and how brands can make them shed a tear (or at least mutter “aw”).

This year, however, several holiday ads from popular brands were met with criticism and controversy from viewers and authorities across the UK. In an age where consumers value companies with a social mission, there is a balance to be made between commerce and charity when marketing the holidays.

Commercialized Celebrations

Many viewers this year Tweeted that the long-reigning leader in holiday ads, John Lewis, was “not Christmassy enough” and served a commercial goal of promoting Elton John’s upcoming biopic and tour. The idea was to show that gifts are more than just novelties, but rather unforgettable staples in one’s life; just as Elton John’s piano, gifted to him as a young boy, made him the success he is today. But the Brits aren’t buying it–especially since Elton was rumoured to have received 5 million pounds for the 2-minute clip.

Waitrose also ditched the sob story this year and opted for a more product-led campaign. The retail grocery store mocked John Lewis’ ‘feel good’ holiday ads and bringing it back to what consumers really want during the festive season: good food. Despite the brand’s departure from its traditional appeal to emotion, Waitrose’s snarky take on the holiday ad was well-received on social media. In some ways, the brand achieved the ultimate trifecta: taking a clever and humorous approach to an already-viral campaign while still pushing its own product.

The ad’s transparency is also a double-whammy: it subtly says what many seemed to think of the Elton John ad and offers no pretenses about the ‘stuff’ that really makes the holidays. As marketing efforts evolve over time–particularly in the seasonal height of consumerism–the more familiar consumers become with old and overused techniques and often resent the feeling of being coerced into a brand’s commercial objectives.

Festively Philanthropic

On the other hand, some brands have leaned too far into their charitable initiatives and, in turn, neglected marketing goals. For example, the viral campaign launched by Iceland this year featured a baby orangutan called Rang-Tan who hangs around in a little girl’s room because, as we find out in the second half, his home has been destroyed by deforestation from the farming of palm oil. Not only was the ad far removed from a holiday theme, but it was also deemed environmental propaganda and too political due to its affiliation with Greenpeace. Clearcast, a non-government advertising oversight committee, therefore did not allow it to run due to the breach of the broadcast code for advertising practice (BCAP).

Whether this was the intended outcome or not, the video clip suffered The Streisand effect and went viral, with viewers falling in love with Rang-Tan. However, it is difficult to know whether this is helping or hindering the budget chain’s success in driving Christmas sales. What’s interesting is the difference in responses to Iceland’s and John Lewis’ equally non-festive ads, and how important it is to know your audience within your marketing efforts.

It begs the saying “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” But does it mean that all brands should play it safe with humble narratives during the holidays?

Getting the Balance Right

The answer is no. At the heart of it, companies create the novelty holiday ads for one objective alone: to drive their seasonal sales. And many consumers openly view Christmas as a time for spending money, so it would be foolish to not market your best products. For maximum output, brands can keep the compelling narrative provided they use it to their commercial advantage.

Sainsbury’s did it successfully this year by leveraging the Christmas tree and all of its decor within the setting of a school play, to portray ideals of family and loved ones. Aldi has taken humble Kevin the Christmas Carrot to not only parody the iconic Coca-Cola ad, but to also push its franchise of carrot soft toys. And these are expected to sell out fast. Boots also worked in some tear-jerking mother-daughter content, portraying family frustrations that are cured with Christmas spirit. How, you ask? Through some hearty carol singing and a gift (a stick of lipstick from Boots, of course) “that says you get them.”

Whether or not brands will continue to push their agendas, whether it be commercial or political, it is hard to say, but we are certainly excited to see what’s in store for next year. For now, we’re looking forward to what Waitrose absolutely got right in its ad: good, festive food.