'Tis the season for thrifty TV ads

Des O'Connor and Ant 'n' Dec star in this year's big Christmas campaigns. Sophie Morris finds out why

What a difference a year makes. In the run up to Christmas 2007, the good folk of the British Isles were preparing to splash their cash on another no-expenses-spared Christmas. Why not, eh? Credit was easier to come by than a kiss under the mistletoe.

At the best of times, the big retailers face an annual struggle to persuade shoppers to spend in their store, rather than the one down the road, and the key to persuading consumers that their chocolates, Brussels sprouts and fizz should be bought at Marks & Spencer rather than at Tesco (or vice versa) rests on a reliably camp media event: the Christmas telly ad. Get it right, and shoppers should be queuing round the corner. Broadcast a turkey, however, and your profits will slump.

If 2007 was the year of frivolous abandon in the ad-breaks, 2008 will be remembered as the year of frugal caution. Take Tesco for starters. Last year, it engaged the services of all five Spice Girls to star in a festive advert rumoured to cost £5m. Viewers were treated to scenes of the five glamourpusses browsing iPods and flat-screen televisions and arguing over whether they would feast on lobster or goose. This year, in stark contrast, Tesco unveiled Des O'Connor as its Christmas cracker. The golden oldie of entertainment television stars in a clip set in a family home with a decidedly retro aesthetic. O'Connor croons a classic Christmas song as Tesco's cut price offers are displayed around him.

So is Tesco too strapped for cash to afford the A-listers this year? Far from it. Its attempt to reach out to consumers watching their pennies is lost on no-one, least of all Brand Strategy editor Ruth Mortimer. "Tesco is very deliberately choosing to look like it doesn't spend much on its adverts," she explains. "It wants to send out the message that it isn't spending loads on its ads, but on making things cheaper." O'Connor is a good fit for thriftier times. "He appeals to all generations," says Tesco's commercial director, Richard Brasher, "and sets the tone perfectly for the feel-good Christmas our customers want this year, at the prices they need."

Economic anxiety is turning consumers into bargain hunters, engendering a mood of nostalgia and the need to seek comfort in the home and hearth. M&S has hired the Take That boys to help Twiggy and Myleene Klass prepare the perfect Christmas, which, Mortimer believes, will attract an important market. "Take That are a good way to make people in their thirties feel like M&S is relevant to them," she says. Sainsbury's uses the same trick, putting Ant and Dec alongside Jamie Oliver, who were almost as popular 15 years ago as they are today. "They're seen as cheeky chappies, and a bit like you and me," says Mortimer. "Ant and Dec make Jamie and his messages about sensible eating seem a bit more blokey and a bit less preachy."

Asda has cut its celebrity cast in favour of people from a village in North Yorkshire. "We have chosen to return to traditional community values, which remain at the heart of our business," says Asda's marketing and brand director, Rick Bendel.

Iceland has stuck by former Atomic Kitten Kerry Katona, a celebrity chosen because her image aligned perfectly with the average Iceland shopper, who had a limited grocery budget before the credit crunch hit. "Kerry is the perfect spokesman for Iceland because she seems so accessible," says Mortimer. She sums up how things can go wrong for you and people relate to her really easily. She's not being used as a role model, but because people genuinely believe that Kerry would shop at Iceland." Not only that: "The way Kerry has been spending money [Katona filed for bankruptcy earlier this year] is the way that lots of people have been living their life, on permanent credit."

And what of Woolworths, famed throughout the Eighties for persuading the most popular British stars of the time to dress up as elves for its ads? Its Christmas campaign seems to have been axed just as the plug was being pulled on the retailer itself. Shame: Woolies encapsulates nostalgia more than any other store on the British high street. If the current festive ads have got the mood right, it might well have been this Christmas's store of choice.