The Ad wars: Weaponising Christmas spirit for profit (plus tingly feelings)

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Business is often an imitation game. Every successful move sets competitors asking “can’t we do that too?” Sometimes they cannot. Coke, for instance, is so thoroughly identified in consumers’ minds with Father Christmas, that Pepsi doesn’t even try pushing back. Instead they stake out a completely different celebrity-oriented space. Coke earned this seasonal advantage the hard way – they weren’t the first people to dress Santa up in red and white, but they were largely responsible for inking that image into the popular imagination (no, it’s not really a time-worn tradition, it’s a corporate promotion that took on a life of its own – just as greeting card companies were the ones to bestow upon us that blue is for boys, and pink for girls).

John Lewis hit upon an advertising bonanza when they married two deep psychological truths: we yearn to be told what we want to hear, and a good story can bring emotions to life. Specifically, they started telling good stories that animated the warm sentiments that many of us like to feel about our late-December gift giving.

Their rivals saw. They saw the first one about a young boy who was excited for Christmas so that he could GIVE the perfect gift. They watched this evolve into the serial adventures of cute snow men / bears / penguins / dogs, all set to acoustic pop covers. They spotted that all these ads feature the self-same message about how touching a good gift can be, and they paired this emotional insight with the John Lewis brand name. They spotted the expensive production values, the ads’ wide popularity (with associated social media fluttering). And they will not have missed John Lewis’ steadily rising revenues over these years (if not profits, but then those are complicated by variously fluctuating expenses).

Having taken all of these things in, John Lewis’ retail competitors appear to have realised two things: First, that Christmas adverts with these warm and fuzzy messages work. Second, that they cannot risk the perception settling into consumers’ minds that John Lewis is the high street archetype of joyful Christmas giving. Far too large a chunk of their own sales come from the holiday season for them to cede any of the mental real estate about it over to John Lewis.

And so we see the imitations from Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, even The Co-op. We see Christmas football games, Mog the cat ending and inadvertently saving Christmas, and everyone being thoughtfully helped out, from neighbours to the man on the moon. Tens of millions of pounds have suddenly started being pumped into these ads, with industry sources reporting startling surges in consumer interest, and that a handsome return on investment (http://www.retailgazette.co.uk/blog/2016/11/Christmas%20adverts,%20bigger%20than%20Jesus). They have become such a phenomenon that they have even become a point of reference for social cause protestors (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aw966AqgCA).

This may be an unusually expensive example of the commercial imitation game, but it’s is not the first nor will it be the last. Dos Equis beer, for example, broke with the long established advertising format of “beer = partying and/or laddish jokes”, when they came up with their Most Interesting Man in the World spots (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ-K0Tl8a_Y). Now brands from Cobra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qREcWVAq04o) to Stella Artois (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6e4ln5yrh6o) have pinched the idea, and run ads similarly featuring a tongue in cheek, enigmatically fascinating alpha male spokesman.

This is a story older than advertising. Even in the Victorian playhouses, writers were constantly adapting and imitating each other’s’ creative insights – whenever anyone, anywhere, has ever found a lucrative way to resonate with the public, their competitors have always tried to mine the creative DNA of their insight, and build it into their own productions (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Adapting-Victorian-Literature-1848-1920/dp/1472424395). Business has always been business has always been imitative.

The irony, though, is that despite the collected efforts of the heavyweights of the British advertising industry to distill the expressive essence of the feel-good Christmas ad, this year’s runaway hit – the one that is provoking the media and social media gossip, currently sitting at 12 million YouTube views (and counting) – is from Polish e-commerce firm Allegro, and it is barely about Christmas at all. While everyone else was trying to find a story that resonates with the notion of seasonal generosity, Allegro, uses a story that resonates with human connection to batter through an entire phalanx of the barriers that invisibly split us from our neighbours. It pierces a tunnel of human empathy directly through the borders between countries, and between generations. It uses the universal qualities of family and love and bonding to totally bypass the issues of immigration and expatriate-ism that have had so many of our nerves on edge, of late, in the fractured political world we live in. It’s a beautiful little bit of art, and one that slips the firms offerings in as an integral backdrop to the story, there so naturally as to be unobtrusive. It’s something a little more than a pleasure to watch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU5Rnd-HM6A). And if there is one thing you can be certain of, Britain’s commercial hubs are currently chock full of jealous advertising creatives, shaking their heads, and trying to work out how to distill the idea for their own future work.

Possibly they cannot.

You almost hope that they can’t. It would be a shame for this, too, to becomes a cliché.

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Alex Gunz

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