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The History of Christmas Ad Campaigns in the UK (and 2019’s top 5)

Becca Challis

Jan 2, 2020

In the UK, the beginning of Christmas is no longer signified by the first real frost or the premature festive chocolate aisle in supermarkets. It isn’t marked by the first advent calendar, or by putting up decorations. Instead, for many, it’s the first airing of Christmas TV adverts that truly signifies the start of the festive season. 

It’s quite miraculous that Christmas campaigns have become central to our routines and traditions. However, the origins of the Christmas ad extend back to Coca-Cola posters in the 1920s, featuring a very stern-looking Santa Claus who looked anything but jolly. Adverts were first shown on British TV in 1955 but focused on seasonal toy promotions.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1995 that Coca-Cola’s “Holidays are Coming” TV campaign, featuring their iconic red truck, first aired. For many, this is still the most memorable Christmas ad of all time – but it was, instead, the John Lewis Christmas advert which burgeoned the entire genre of festively themed messaging that consumers have come to know and love. Today, we are over a decade into the Christmas battle of the brands – a firm institution of the festive period.

Deck the halls with boughs of #hashtags

Just this month, there have been 6,500 online news articles on 2019’s Christmas ads, demonstrating the scale of the discussion, which takes place every festive season. Meanwhile, 46,000 people in the UK have taken to Twitter to discuss the release of the big brands’ campaigns. In fact, this year people began searching for the hugely anticipated John Lewis advert in September – two months before its official release. 

Christmas gifts

It’s beginning to feel a lot like a competition

The festive hype wasn’t created overnight but over a decade of successful John Lewis campaigns, including iconic ads such as “The Journey”, “The Bear and the Hare” and “Monty the Penguin.” John Lewis’ continuing focus on message, emotion and the magic of Christmas established a gold standard of advertising in this space, winning over shoppers with sentimental tales and firmly positioning itself as the guardian of Christmas.

The accompanying acoustic cover songs include five Top 10 hits and two Christmas Number 1s, often promoting new and young talent. Pioneers in producing accompanying toys and merchandise to their campaign, they were praised for their tasteful approach, to an audience who were more than happy to be wooed by Christmas again.

Other brands followed suit, with Sainsbury’s Mog campaign and M&S’ Paddington ad becoming memorable classics of the genre, and soon the Christmas ‘ad-race’ was unavoidable. Over a thousand news articles this month mention Christmas ads in conjunction with the competition surrounding them, and the ongoing fight for consumer’s attention has certainly complicated the process of standing out. 

Jingle bells, emotion sells

In recent years, we have watched as John Lewis has caught up with itself. Years of growing expectations took its toll on the retail giant with their controversial “Moz the Monster” campaign resulting in a plagiarism row, after viewers took to social media to point out its similarities to Chris Riddell’s much-loved children’s story.

Although, the controversy around the campaign caused YouTube views to soar. In fact, John Lewis continue to face similar problems this year, as multiple authors have aired their concerns over similarities between their work and this year’s “Excitable Edgar.”

The brand’s 2018 offering featured a collaboration with Elton John for his upcoming Rocketman film release, which left many unsatisfied by the cost of the campaign (a whopping £7million), while others thoroughly enjoyed the tribute to a national treasure. The sentimental mould, fashioned by John Lewis’ earlier ads, has marked their latter offerings as failing to make viewers cry or ‘feel Christmassy’. 

Instead this year, Asda and Sainsbury’s have adopted John Lewis’ original blueprint for an emotive message and have seen huge success – proving that John Lewis isn’t the only retailer who can capture the ‘spirit of Christmas’. 

John Lewis Christmas Ad

…but Christmas ads are also changing

Over the last couple of years, Christmas ads have undergone some drastic changes in order to reflect the huge disruptions we have seen in the retail sector. With many high street closures and multiple high-profile chains going bust in 2019, viewers have found that big expensive ads miss the mark, at a time when thousands have lost their jobs across the country. The struggling high street is even the theme of Visa’s Christmas offering, as they promote local shopping, while various shopkeepers give their best rendition of Queen’s Somebody to Love. 

  • Cutting costs of big ad-spends has also become more of a focus – Debenhams has been widely praised for producing their festive ad in-house, saving a huge amount of money for the business. This highlights an important factor for businesses at Christmas: the FOMO effect for brands in the ‘golden quarter’. Consumers reportedly spend £30billion in Q4, and so brands have come to fight for airtime in an over-saturated market. Debenhams proves the importance in joining the race for consumer attention in order to remain relevant – but, this can also be a wonderful opportunity to showcase the talent of their creative teams, rather than outsourcing with a pricey budget. 
  • Vying for the limelight. Retailers have mutually changed their strategy in the ‘airtime race’ by staggering their campaign releases to allow each to have its own impact. Arguably one of the biggest changes in recent years is the content of Christmas adverts. While John Lewis have stuck to their on-brand sentimental message, and many including Asda and Sainsbury’s have continued to follow suit, another camp has emerged. Ikea produced their first UK Christmas ad this year, featuring grime artist D Double E as the voice of rapping kitsch ornaments, but focused on Ikea’s business concept and advertised specific products.
  • Product-focused adverts. Similarly, Argos’ drumming daddy-daughter duo focuses on the Argos catalogue, and the products you can find inside. In 2019, we’re seeing the beginning of a return to product-focused adverts, where brands advertise their featured promotions and have greater control of their ‘must-haves’ list. If you cast your minds back, this was where the John Lewis advert actually began, with campaigns such as “Shadows”, “The Feeling” and “A Tribute to Givers”. 

Whether adverts continue to follow the patterns of Camp A or Camp B, one thing is for certain. The greatest change we have seen to these campaigns is their medium. It’s now unimaginable to think of a Christmas ad without its accompanying social campaign, but considering Twitter was only launched in 2006, and Instagram in 2010, the importance of social media in the success of a campaign is now more relevant than ever.

While the marketing, advertising and communications departments of organisations globally have had to adapt and update in the switch to social, certain brands have done better than others with their seasonal campaigns.

The social impact

It will come as no surprise that the pioneers of the Christmas ad as we know it, John Lewis, have led the way in achieving a cross-media campaign. This year, the “Excitable Edgar” ad was teased using a short pre-release video, creating a buzz on social media, while paid advertising has kept it at the top of users’ channels.

A creative social approach has also enabled the campaign to be ahead of the curve, with Edgar Snapchat filters and even a special Edgar emoji on Twitter available in the run up to Christmas. However, simpler approaches have had similarly huge effects in the past. Lidl’s satirical jibe at John Lewis’s Elton advert last year received 26K retweets, as it advertised: “Just because you don’t have £872 to spend on a piano, doesn’t mean you can’t be the next Elton. #EltonJohnLewis ”, alongside a picture of a keyboard and the pun, “It’s a Lidl bit funny”. This certainly goes to show that social can continue to unlock new audiences and will continue to be a growing focus for many winters to come.

Excitable Edgar John Lewis Ad 2019

Source: The Guardian

How effective are Christmas ads, really?

Critics are always ready for the discussion on Christmas ads, with an increasing number of people questioning both their purpose and their effectiveness. While yes, a huge sum of money is spent every year on seasonal campaigns, recent releases have proven that this is not actually necessary. By combining the John Lewis and Waitrose offering this year, even the biggest spender is taking cost-cutting measures.

The purpose of these ads is still as evident as ever – to get people talking and securing your brand the airtime it needs in a highly competitive season. Brand loyalty is promoted too, as businesses have an opportunity to creatively express the messages and attributes they want to be known for, and customers affected by these ads have this at the forefront of their brains when they spend. 

Ads continue to be a good driver for footfall, as consumers flock to buy the campaign’s accompanying toy – as we saw with the hugely in-demand “Kevin the Carrot” plush delivered by Aldi last year. Viewers were thrilled with his return this season, as we see the first recurring star of the genre. The ultimate measurement of success in seasonal campaigns is their Social impact, and the ROI of festive campaigns can be hugely impressive.

In fact, John Lewis’ Elton John ad is said to deliver twenty times the return on the company’s original spend in social hits, as it attracted over fifty million views on. This trend continues, as this year’s “Edgar” ad gained 17.3 million views on social media within the first 24 hours of its release, according to John Lewis’ long-time ad partners Adam & Eve/DDB.

Elton John Christmas Ad

Source: The Drum

Our top picks for 2019

Examining the social data can help us to see the success in even simpler terms. Meltwater’s analysis of tweets during the releases revealed that the most commonly used emoji when talking about the ads was by far the love heart, with over ten thousand uses compared to just three thousand sad faces. And, guess who still dominates the market? Of course, the most commonly used hashtag is #excitableedgar. It will be very interesting to see where Christmas campaigns go next – but until then, here is Meltwater’s roundup of the 5 most creative ads of 2019:

1. Sainsbury’s

2. John Lewis 

3. Argos

4. Ikea 

5. Asda

Bonus throwback – Curry’s #SpareTheAct Christmas campaign

No post about Christmas ads would be complete without a quick trip down memory lane. After all, nostalgia is the name of the season’s game and part of what makes it the most wonderful time of year. Who could forget Jeff Golblum’s performance in the Curry #SparetheAct ads that showed Golblum walking into present-opening scenarios and teaching the recipients of unwanted gifts to act happy about it, despite the fact they didn’t get what they really hoped for. The ads end with the tagline “spare the act this Christmas” – combining the skillful art of storytelling with humour and a key tie-in to Curry’s PC World.

Want to up your festive advertising game? Contact Meltwater for media intelligence that can help you tell the stories your consumers will love these holidays.