Claire Beale On Advertising: Cut-price ads will bring us festive turkeys

The advertising industry always approaches Christmas with a sackful of trepidation. For its clients, Christmas is a do-or-die sales period, and you can bet there are more than a few boardrooms clinging on to the hope that the next few weeks will revive their fragile balance sheets.

The media marketplace is being leavened as big brands scramble for our money before our wallets shut when the sales end, the bills start arriving and VAT goes back up. The ads you're seeing now are nothing short of a desperate assault on our pockets.

For the rest of us, though, we expect the festive season's advertising offerings to brighten our media and our mood. We want to wallow in the fantasy of the perfect Christmas and the cheesier, sparklier, snowier and more lush our Yule ads, the better.

Pity poor ad agencies, then, carrying the weight of such expectations. Out go the usual aspirations – to be cutting-edge, original and surprising – that the agency has striven for during the rest of the year; it's back to raiding the cliché cupboard for the comfortingly familiar trappings of the season.

That wouldn't be too much of a problem if it wasn't for the inevitable presence of recession as a piquant ingredient in this year's advertising pudding. Cheap media deals this December mean the Christmas ads are more visible than ever. But it doesn't take an expert eye to see where the corners have been cut in the production budgets. This is nothing if not a cut-price Christmas.

So we shouldn't be surprised that this year's festive campaigns have more of the turkey than the cracker about them. Take Marks & Spencer. It's got all the usual tinsel: loveable celebrities, plumply filled mince pies, affordable party frocks and Noemie Lenoir in her smalls. But the campaign just doesn't have enough warmth and joy to create a nice Christmas glow.

Mind you, the M&S ads did get a few of those serial complainers hot under the collar. Philip Glenister's homage to Gene Hunt has him saying that Christmas wouldn't be the same "without that girl prancing around in her underwear"; cue eight complaints about sexism to the Advertising Standards Authority. Bah humbug.

Here Come the Girls from the Boots' campaigns of Christmases past, and they're as excited as ever. This one's not as good as the original from a few years back but the 2009 girls still make you want to squeeze into your gladrags, swim in eau de toilette and get fruity with men in cheap suits.

Of course, it's the supermarkets who'll win big this Christmas, though there's not much cheer to be found in their advertising campaigns. Tesco's Christmas push is a big disappointment. It's as cheap as the bargains on its Finest range and even manages to make me nostalgic for the days when the Spice Girls were Tesco's Christmas fairies.

Morrison's has gone to town on the Christmas iconography this year; the only thing missing from this campaign is any hint that Christmas has religious connotations. If you like your Christmases minimal, this will put you off your Pedro Ximénez; it's as sickly as a pint of eggnog. And Richard Hammond in his cardi makes my toes curl.

Naturally Jamie is doing his bit to ensure Sainsbury's has a cracking Christmas. He genuinely seems to be enjoying himself as he goes on the road to bring Christmas to the sticks, and this is one ad that does manage to make the traditional Yuletide fare look as scrummy as the (fake) wintry countryside. I've already written in this column about the John Lewis Christmas campaign, which stays the right side of schmaltz but still manages to be cute and warm. But the biggest cracker on TV this season is the Argos ad. It's all that Christmas should be: loving, warm, affectionate and really quite silly. And who cares if it's cheap.

Best in Show: Transport for London (M&C Saatchi)

It's the party season, you can't find a black cab for love nor money and barely stand up straight. Then a "taxi" pulls up like a chariot out of the gloom and you're sorted. Don't move. At least not until you've seen M&C Saatchi's new campaign for Transport for London, which chillingly drives home (excuse the inappropriate pun) the dangers of taking an unlicensed minicab. You can't see much in this commercial, which makes it all the more disturbing. The fuzzy picture and muffled sound convey the terror perfectly. Text cab to 60835 and you'll get a text back with numbers for three licensed cab companies near your location.

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