At no other time of the year is it so encouraged to shamelessly gush over adverts than at Christmas. In fact, publicly declaring how many tears you shed over the latest release of Sainsbury’s emotional porn is seen as inexplicably cute and trendy in the 21st century, like wearing a onesie outdoors or Facetiming your Dad on the toilet. It lets everyone know that you’re human, and that behind all the Armani and Juicy Couture there is still some soul left. Fortunately, this soul can then be drawn out by some playful CGI and arm wrestled into your nearest Debenhams.
How did things get so backwards? I remember when TV adverts were dull intrusions into our lives that we simply had to put up with to get to the second half of Come Dine With Me. You do what you can to resist the cattle prod, but inevitably the brands we see in our living rooms are we ones we find ourselves mindlessly dumping into our shopping trolleys. At no point did we actively enjoy these lurid sales pitches. Now though, a three minute video about a spouseless penguin is the closest thing we get to high art all year.
“The biggest issue with these adverts is the way they combine sensitive subject matters with schmaltzy narrative to convince everyone that they’re Just Like Us”
The biggest issue with these adverts is the way they combine sensitive subject matters with schmaltzy narratives in order to get under our skin and convince everyone that they’re Just Like Us. By piggybacking on whichever leading emotive cause market research has drummed up that year, they show us that they too have values and care about society. It used to be that a company would big up their product on the tele, we’d buy it, then feel like guilty consumers until we were hooked in again. But now we’re happy to throw our cash away, because it’s going to our nice friend Mr John Lewis who gives all his profits away to Grandma Jenkins (while his cleaners barely scrape a living wage). Shopping at John Lewis then becomes a charitable act of giving in itself, as we convince ourselves that our new electronic apple corer is going towards Grandma Jenkins’ new puss.
“Now, a three minute video about a spouseless penguin is the closest we get to high art all year”
If there is anything good about companies appropriating charitable causes it is that at least they know what its customers want to see — the rich helping the poor and needy. As long as this ideological climate exists, there is hope left for us. Obviously, I can’t take away from the fact that companies are voluntarily choosing to give a portion of their profits (it would be nice to know exactly what percentage this portion really is) to charity organisations, but I wonder how much extra revenue these charity sanctioned tear jerkers bring in in the first place. And even when Sainsbury’s stage a harrowing recreation of a war scene that appeals to our sense of national history in the name of a not-for-profit chocolate bar, the company name still rises from the misty battlefield in the final shot making us feel that little bit warmer towards good old Mr. Sainsbury (who still doesn’t always pay his male and female workers the same).
So obviously I get that Christmas is a hedonistic orgy of commercialism, I have come to accept is depressing fact every time winter rolls back around. But the thing I really hate to see is my normally intelligent friends being emotionally manipulated by John Lewis and cooing over animated horny penguins. Nobody cries over me being single at yuletide and I’m a real person for Christ sake. So I say this: turn off your TVs this Christmas, save your soul.
It is not clear to me how anyone could have a problem with Christmas adverts. It isn’t as if shops only advertise to us in the run-up to the most wonderful time of the year. If we grudgingly tolerate adverts at all other times of the year, then why should Christmas adverts irritate us? And if we hate adverts all of the time, then why on earth would Christmas be any worse?
What’s more, I would argue that Christmas ads are actually less annoying than normal adverts. Many of the best-known ones don’t show things you can actually buy and often have messages centred on caring for each other, sharing and being together (generally considered to be good things). Some of them have even become traditions, up there with the Fenwick’s window as ways to get into the Christmas spirit.
“I think it’s quite nice that retailers do in fact work with charities to create Christmas adverts with messages of goodwill”
The John Lewis Christmas ad this year features a lonely man on the moon and serves to highlight the plight of elderly people in the UK. They’ve teamed up with Age UK as part of the ‘no one should have no one at Christmas’ fundraising campaign to raise awareness and funds for lonely elderly people at Christmas. According to Age UK, there are over a million older people who “haven’t spoken a friend, neighbour or family member for at least a month” in the UK right now. The aim of their campaign is to raise funds to provide an advice line that people can ring for help. The advice line can point people in the direction of befriending services, helping to reduce the loneliness of elderly people.
The other big-hitter this year is the Sainsbury’s ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ ad. It’s schmaltzy and sentimental but the message at heart is about community and helping others less fortunate than you. It seems that Mog is a well-known children’s storybook character so perhaps we can forgive the cheesiness a little. Again, the Sainsbury’s advert ties in with a charity partner. In this case, it’s Save the Children and their campaign to improve child literacy in the UK. There is a product being advertised in this case, a children’s book by Judith Kerr and a toy, the profits for which go to Save the Children. This means that Sainsbury’s have essentially created an ad campaign to promote a book that they do not personally profit from.
“They could simply choose to focus on their products, but they don’t”
The important thing to note is that adverts don’t have to be fun, or have a message or even necessarily be festive (e.g. all perfume ads ever created). Sainsbury’s and John Lewis and the like don’t have to produce miniature films with heart-warming messages and charity tie-ins. They could simply advertise their actual products. With this in mind, I think it’s quite nice that retailers do in fact work with charities to create Christmas adverts with messages of goodwill. Even Christmas adverts that do feature actual products (Lidl, Boots, ASDA) go out of their way to create a feeling of festive spirit and Christmas fun.
In fact, I think it is remarkably true to the spirit of Christmas. Think about it: advertising campaigns aren’t cheap (‘Man on the Moon’ cost £7,000,000). Retailers spend a not-insignificant amount of money to make an advert which promotes messages of goodwill and helping others. As previously mentioned, they don’t have to do this. They could choose to focus on profits and products but they don’t. I think that’s quite nice.
Finally, to those still complaining about Christmas adverts I say this. Without them, there would still be adverts. They would just be boring and non-seasonal. We have that for the whole rest of the year – let’s enjoy Christmas while it’s here.