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Christmas is here – the ads told me…

Every year Christmas begins a little earlier. This year we were barely into October before the shops started displaying their Yuletide tat and decorations were popping up here and there. It’s the nature of the biggest festival of consumerism the world has ever known, and there’s no way of extending it beyond it’s long agreed end date (Christmas day), so it’s no wonder that retailers want to extend it as early into the year as they can. The problem is that this all makes it rather difficult to know when to start getting excited – when the real start date is. Thankfully one retailer has thought of this and decided to make it easy for us – John Lewis. When their ad hits our screens then we know it’s really Christmas.

For our American readers it’s important to know that in the UK there is no traditional ‘big day’ for ads, no time of year where creative masterpieces traditionally debut. The UK has no Superbowl Sunday. In fact until very recently the UK had no history of ads competing whatsoever.

Coke’s Holidays are Coming aside – John Lewis basically invented Christmas adverts as we know them today – all narrative, emotion and softly sung cover versions of rock classics rather than the previous standard of a screen rammed with merchandise guaranteed to send kids hyperactive and parents bankrupt. They changed the game in 2009 and since then everyone has been battling for supremacy in the field – all trying to outdo John Lewis and John Lewis trying to outdo their previous efforts.

The web is awash with reviews and analysis of the various ads, and we’re not going to add to that traffic here. We’re just going to ask one question. Why?

Obviously we understand advertising and the vital role it plays in retail, we’re not questioning the whole industry here, however this is an entirely different sack of presents. If rumours are to be believed John Lewis’ 2017 effort, directed by Michel Gondry, cost a staggering £7 million – previous efforts apparently cost a similar amount and competitors have allegedly spent even more (we’re looking at you 2016 Burberry ad).  In this era of affordable, accessible filmmaking it’s hard to understand where all that money goes, and it’s even harder to defend spending it in the first place.

Let’s ignore the difference that sort of money could make to the retailers’ staff at Christmas especially any temporary workers on low hourly wages. Equally we should dismiss the wider moral element of throwing that sort of cash at lavish TV ads at the time of year that’s supposed to be about the spirit of giving and goodwill to all men. The fact that just half that money would probably see all of London’s homeless safely housed over Christmas is true (and would have made a way better story for the brand), but plenty of retailers spend plenty of money in plenty of questionable ways throughout the year.

Taking it on a purely business level there are legitimate questions though. In an age of highly targeted online ads that are dramatically cheaper to both make and place, and come with success measuring analytics that TV ads can only dream of, going so big on TV spots is confusing to say the least. It’s also a game of diminishing returns – the more players enter the Christmas ad contest the fewer are going to win. Even worse for John Lewis, as THE Christmas ad guys, they not only face the possibility of being outdone by other retailers, but their ad can be seen as a failure if it’s perceived to be not as good as some of their previous ones. Furthermore there are millions who only know of John Lewis in relation to their Christmas ads, and although that brand recognition is obviously great, it’s inevitable that the return on their investment in advertising is going to diminish – everybody has heard of John Lewis now, how likely is another ad to change their shopping habits?

The point is that although the Christmas ad battle generates a huge amount of creative output, ranging from exceptional to excretional, it’s highly questionable whether it represents value for money for anyone involved. The only thing that is certain is that it makes for a very Happy Christmas for the big agencies. £7 million in your stocking will certainly do that.

If this all comes across as a little ‘bah humbug’ let us make up for it with our favourite 2017 Christmas ad. Yes, we can critique the whole affair and still enjoy the output, we’re not hypocrites. Shut up. It’s this effort for Swiss supermarket Migros, made by Passion Pictures for agency Wirz BBDO. It’s funny, it’s sweet and it carries an important seasonal message about the importance of combatting loneliness. Migros are putting their money where their mouth is too, raising money for loneliness prevention charities – a problem that is particularly significant at this time of year – and that’s money well spent in our book.

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