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Death, taxes and Christmas adverts - life’s only real certainties.

And the latter appear as regularly as clockwork. Just as soon as Halloween’s ghouls have tricked and retreated and that last firework’s fizzled out.

But some retailers can’t seem to wait.

John Lewis actually pulled the trigger two weeks early this year, claiming Christmas searches were up 50% onsite compared with the same time in 2020.

But whether you reckon it’s too early to open your Christmas presents or not, what do we really want from these types of ads? If, indeed, we actually want them around at all.

Well according to last year’s Holiday Insights Report (as covered in The Drum), 47% of the 822 Britons surveyed were looking for these ads to make them feel happy, 44% wanted to feel warm and 31% sought nostalgia.

These factors ranked much higher than the 15% who wanted seasonal ads to make them feel informed. Furthermore, 33% hoped advertisers would refrain from referencing the pandemic.

But although COVID is never far from our minds these days, much attention has shifted back towards climate change following COP26 in Glasgow.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the focus for advertisers - why?

“We like brands to be consistent in what they have previously said or done, so retailers who deliver Christmas ads that are in keeping with our expectations, such as John Lewis’ masterclasses in storytelling, can expect to be received well,” suggests Jo Adetunji at The Conversation.

But it wasn’t always this way.

From selling to storytelling - a season change in Christmas ads

The big shift in Christmas advertising came in 2011 with John Lewis’ ‘The Long Wait’. The short film depicted a boy painstakingly counting down the days until Christmas. However, when the big day does finally come, he rushes to his parent’s room to give them their gift instead of opening his own.

Not only was this a clever way to subvert audience expectations but it was also symbolic of a major shift in Xmas advertising as a whole.

Rewind sixty years and Hoover was using a similar narrative device in its festive campaign. But instead of creating a story that would surprise its audience and pull on their heartstrings, it pushed product front-and-centre instead.

We’ve come a long way, right?

Well, it certainly feels like we have. But although John Lewis changed the landscape of Christmas ads with its 2011 campaign, the objective was always about selling more products.

And it worked.

John Lewis estimated that since 2012, their sales have increased by more than 35%; the brand puts this down to the success of their Christmas campaigns.

But John Lewis has also demonstrated that a good Xmas ad has the power to do so much more.

“On a more heart-warming note, the big Christmas adverts can also show an increase in funding and awareness for various charities,” argues the editorial team at Total Merchandise. They suggest a good festive campaign can not just affect profits but have major societal benefits, too.

“For instance, when John Lewis released their advert centred around loneliness and the Man on the Moon, Age UK reported a massive increase in enquiries for volunteering,” they said.

So, in the knowledge that festive advertising can be a medium that makes a difference, why aren’t more brands stepping up?

So this is Christmas - and what have you done?

According to market research company Kantar and as reported in the BBC, UK consumers spend about £30bn in the so-called "golden quarter" leading up to Christmas. And following the template set by John Lewis, this is why advertisers follow three tried and tested tropes in their adverts:

  1. Tell a good story in which the brand plays a key part
  2. Trigger an emotional response, but not be too serious or sad
  3. Provide an epic Christmas experience that draws people in.

Essentially, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix” - because this festive formula’s working.

But for Danny Rogers at iNews, apathy in advertising is a dangerous distraction in today’s climate.

Talking about campaigns from John Lewis, Marks and Spencers and the usual seasonal suspects, he said that “... most festive offerings felt like advertising-by-numbers; safe, traditional and box-ticking rather than getting any purposeful, progressive or innovative messages across.”

But surely there’s plenty of other opportunities to push purpose-driven messaging. Shouldn’t Christmas advertising be about, you know, making people feel all warm and cosy?

“While I get this argument, that’s not really been the narrative in the corporate world for the past decade and during the height of the pandemic last winter, we were led to believe that society had changed; that we would all need to be kinder, more community-focused more conscious of humans’ impact on the planet,” argues Rogers.

OK, but what do consumers expect from brands at this time of year?

Dreaming of a white Christmas - the conscious consumer’s Christmas list

We’ve talked before about the dangers of “greenwashing” and why brands should advertise with empathy. But is creating a whimsical narrative that everything’s fine just as bad?

Well, one thing’s for sure: it’s certainly not helping to reduce overconsumption - as much a commonality for Crimbo as is it is a conundrum for the climate. And although it’s true that Gen Zers have been known to pay more for sustainable products, it’s a common misconception that only this demographic follows purpose-driven brands.

According to last year’s Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, more than half (55%) of those surveyed want brands to create awareness around problems such as climate change - whatever the season. Furthermore, three-quarters (75%) of adults in Great Britain - including a mix of Boomers, Millennials, Gen x and Z - that were surveyed in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS’) Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) said they were either “very” or “somewhat” worried about climate change.

But this isn’t the time to fret about the Ghost of Christmas Future. Brands are in a unique position to help shape today’s behaviour with advertising. Because extensive scientific research shows that, when exposed to advertising, people “buy into” the materialistic values and goals it encourages.

So why not change the message?

Take Iceland’s 2018 Christmas ad for example. Despite headlines at the time, the film wasn’t pulled for being “too political”. Instead, this poignant campaign around saving orangutans by reducing palm oil consumption was disapproved because it was created by Greenpeace instead of Iceland.

“So contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t banned due to the content being political, more so that adverts can’t be created or sourced by parties with a political nature. So, no matter what an advert created by Greenpeace contained, it wouldn’t pass advertising standards to make it on to TV, “ argues Ben Jones for ICS-digital.

Brands shouldn’t feel dissuaded that the appetite for these types of campaigns isn’t there; research tells us it is; in fact, three-quarters of Gen Z (74%) and Millennials (76%) are looking to donate during the festive period (according to UK Fundraising). So with the right brand messaging, why shouldn’t the climate be the cause we invest in?

Christmas only comes once a year - time to make it count.

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