This year’s focus on family and ‘feelings’ has had mixed reactions
There are still 43 shopping days to go until Christmas but the battle for hearts and minds has already begun as retailers go into battle with multimillion pound adverts designed to tug the heart and purse strings.
Store bosses usually wait until after Armistice day to deck the halls but this year major high-street names have already launched their festive campaigns, albeit with mixed results. John Lewis was trending on Twitter on Friday as the twitterati debated new ad “The Journey”, a gentle tale of an animated snowman’s quest to find the perfect gift (in John Lewis, of course) for his snow lady. Meanwhile, Asda faced a different kind of social media reaction to its ad, which features a stressed-out mum preparing for Christmas. Within 24 hours, more than 1,000 comments were posted on Mumsnet about the ad which has been labelled “sexist” and is now being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority after it received more than 160 complaints.
With many households under financial pressure, as higher living costs bite into households’ spending power, retailers have been desperate to strike the right tone with their festive ads. Many stores, including Marks & Spencer and Tesco, have dropped celebrities in favour of family Christmas campaigns to convey the emotion of the festive season and buoy the spirits of customers tired of austerity messages. “This is the golden quarter,” says Steve Sharp, M&S’s head of marketing. “It’s make or break for most retailers and the spend on the ads is in proportion to the commercial importance of the season.”
For M&S, the absence of celebrities ends 12 years of glitzy campaigns that have featured David Beckham, Helen Mirren, Twiggy, Peter Kay and X Factor finalists, among others. This year’s offers an alternative star in the shape of four-year-old Seb White, who has Down’s syndrome and is one of the dancing children featured in the ad.
Tesco is targeting hearts rather than wallets with marketing and digital officer Matt Atkinson saying the pared-down ads treat Christmas “as a feeling, not a season”. The retailer is also in the process of casting members of the public to star in series of spots that are to be filmed in their own homes. High street chemist Boots has taken a similar approach, casting real-life couples and their relatives to capture their chemistry.
But while some retailers, including sister chain John Lewis, have spent millions on their ads, Waitrose has taken the opposite approach. There is no snow machine or family gathered around a table piled with turkey and all the trimmings, instead Delia Smith and Heston Blumenthal are standing in an empty studio explaining that instead of making a “fancy TV advert”, the supermarket would give an extra £1m to good causes.
The Asda ad follows a busy “mum” juggling a long list of Christmas tasks from writing Christmas cards to wrapping presents and peeling a mountain of veg for Christmas lunch, only for her partner to pipe up: “What’s for tea, love?” when she finally sits down. On Mumsnet, comments ranged from “sexist crap” and “something from the 1950s”, to “with three small children, Christmas does feel like that and I can really identify with the woman”. The grocer has apologised to “any mums and dads” upset by its ad, insisting its content was based on interviews with thousands of “Asda mums”.
“It feels like a lot of retailers are trying to show their customers how much they understand them,” says Damon Collins, of advertising firm Joint, who was behind Boots’s Here Come the Girls campaign. “It may be true but people may not want to hear it.” With John Lewis it’s different, he says: “People are looking for reasons to love it.”
So what of the John Lewis £6m ad? The retailer, which did not advertise on television until 2007, has earned a reputation for creating memorable adverts, not least 2010′s “Always A Woman” ad which some viewers said moved them to tears. Last year’s tale of a boy desperately waiting for the big day so he could give a present to his parents also won plaudits, and helped the employee-owned department store achieve record Christmas sales, as well as chart success. Covers of songs featured in John Lewis TV commercials since 2009 have already sold more than 1m units and big things are expected of this year’s cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s anthem, The Power of Love, sung by folk singer Gabrielle Aplin, which by yesterday was already among the top 20 most popular songs on iTunes.