Is there a secret to a good Christmas ad?
Copywriter Mairi reveals the one factor she feels makes some Christmas ads better than the rest.
I was 18 when I found out what true love looked like. I was sitting by the fireplace with a plate of (for Christmas storytelling effect) mince pies. And then I saw him. A snowman. Earnestly braving a storm, crossing the world for his one true love. All to give her the perfect gift: cracking accessories. I found my eyes welling up as a ghostly cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s classic ballad rang in my ears, and two stony-eyed animated snow-folk looked lovingly at each other. It remains one of my favourite love stories of all time.
But hang on - it’s an advert - not Shakespeare? Oh true capitalism, thy drugs are quick.
Before John Lewis, Christmas was the domain of QVC-style adverts. Buy now, eat now, shop now and spend now. And then out of nowhere: an adorable ad launched where a wee boy didn’t even want to get pressies. He just wanted to give one. It started a wave of advertising I would argue is akin to Bernbach’s ‘Lemon’ in the 60s. Christmas ads now had to do storytelling, not just selling.
For many, The John Lewis Christmas advert is a herald of Christmas. Although, of course, Christmas ads weren’t a 2011 invention (as a child, I remember hearing hushed tones of ‘holidays are coming’ and immediately feeling the need to inhale cinnamon). But unlike Adam&Eve’s new-age classics, many earlier ads were annual reruns. Like hearing WHAM! for the millionth time or rewatching The Grinch - they were not unwanted but also not unexpected. The change John Lewis made for Christmas ads was change.
Every year, John Lewis would have a new story. And newspapers would impatiently await its release. As a copywriter, I would love to think that every ad I make will permeate the wider cultural subconscious in the same way. But these ads do seem to be somewhat of an anomaly. And they kickstarted a whole Christmas advertising revolution where every brand wanted a slice of the pecan pie.
In 2011, the fantastic Monty the Penguin was almost usurped by a beautiful moment in history, revisited for Sainsbury’s; an entirely unpredicted move at the time from the supermarket. And from then on, the run up to Christmas became a competition for ‘which brand will knock John Lewis off the top of their Nordman Fir?’.
In 2015, Aldi entered the scene with a stunning spoof of The Man on the Moon. Christmas ads now mocking Christmas ads - what has become of us? To top it off, in 2018, our IRN-BRU team revisited their iconic Snowman ad for a sequel. Christmas ads now have their own cinematic universe. That wee boy from 2011 and his present didn’t know what he was starting!
It’s now 10 years after the ‘first’ John Lewis advert launched. So do Christmas ads still serve the same purpose after all this time?
Us humans are creatures of habit - it’s undeniable. And if John Lewis were to revoke their annual spot, the comments sections would be even more of a toxic place to find oneself. But conversely, the beauty of the OG John Lewis Christmas adverts was their unexpectedness. Something so different to anything else we’d ever seen. And in becoming a ‘tradition’, alas perhaps they have lost a little something of that value - even if the creative itself still holds up.
At Leith, we’ve got a Christmas ads Slack channel (tell me you’re a millennial without telling me you’re a millennial…). Of course, the usual heavy hitters went down well. But the most ‘hearted’ were from unexpected places. We loved Celebrations and Posten Norway. And perhaps even more telling, is where we saw these adverts in the first place. Not in Campaign or The Drum, but through shares from non-adland friends online. These unpredicted gems from unexpected brands have cut through both in agency culture and the everyday online - a sometimes ad adverse environment. So they must be doing something right.
If there’s a secret to a good Christmas ad, I’d say it comes down to an element of surprise. We love the unexpected. Like the very first John Lewis ads or a surprisingly excellent Christmas gift. And if all else fails, 10 years has taught us a good story will always carry you through - preferably one that makes you forget you’re watching a Christmas advert at all.