The best Christmas ads ever

The festive blockbuster was a trend that began more than a quarter of a century ago with the all-singing, all dancing 'The wonder of Woolies' and has remained an annual fixture since. From the funny to the poignant, Richard Gillis picks the best
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The Independent Online

Coca-Cola 2006

Agency: McCann erickson

This ad is as sugary as the drink itself. We rewind to see Santa offering a young girl a bottle of Coke, a favour that is returned 60 years later by the girl, now a grandmother. It plays on Coke's Christmas heritage, and reminds us that the popular image of the jolly red-suited Santa Claus was their creation in the 1930s.

"It was the most amazing hijack," says John Hegarty of BBH. "They turned him into the fat, jolly man we all think of him as. Whether you think it's brilliant or hideous, it changed the way we viewed Christmas. From a marketer's point of view, it was stunning."

Endline: The Coke side of life

Woolworths 1981

Agency: Allen, Brady & Marsh

Peter Marsh's pitch for the Woolworths account has entered advertising folklore. He and partner Rod Allen crammed the client's top brass in to a theatre and came on singing "That's the wonder of Woolies", Marsh in a dinner jacket that he tore off to reveal a white spangly suit. "It was the old Woolworths being discarded to reveal the shiny truth beneath," he explains. The Woolies board questioned the small agency's ability to handle such a big account, and asked to inspect its premises. Marsh agreed – and took them for a tour of a much larger agency, Saywood Baker. "I asked my dear old friend Rodney Millard whether I could borrow his agency for the afternoon," Marsh says. The resulting campaign was the first celeb-fest extravaganza, much copied over the years: Anita Harris, Cossack dancers, The Goodies, and Lennie Bennett in a leotard. And the cost of the ad was passed on to the manufacturers whose products it sold.

Endline: The wonder of Woolies

Schweppes Tonic Water 1990


John Cleese has sued newspapers for suggesting that he wasn't funny anymore, as much to preserve his appeal to advertisers as his image with the public. His stock fell after an ill-conceived Sainsbury's campaign a few years ago, but this is a reminder of his considerable pulling power. The film is a series of fast cuts, with Cleese, in finest A Fish Called Wanda form, superimposed on to the body of a California beach dude. Just a series of headshots, but, for the record, it is very funny.

Endline: Yule love its citric bite

Samaritans 1998

Agency: Ogilvy & Mather

A stunning ad that captures the other side of the festive season: domestic violence, loneliness, sexual abuse, divorce. Every shot is a mini masterpiece of grief and fear. It uses the familiar tactic of contrasting the film with an at-odds soundtrack, this time "Deck the Halls" by Bing Crosby. The ads can be viewed online, courtesy of the Xtreme Information archive at

Endline: Whatever you're going through, we'll go through it with you

Marks & Spencer 2007


"He's not just a marketing director, he's an M&S marketing director" was how the chief executive of M&S, Stuart Rose, described Stephen Sharp, whose "My M&S" campaign helped to stave off a Philip Green takeover in 2004. Twiggy was the original star of the campaign; the metaphor of a national treasure making a comeback was not lost on customers, who made a blouse that she wore in one of the ads the best-selling product in the company's history. "There is nothing without product," Sharp says. "The ads are just 10 per cent of my job." Antonio Banderas and Lily Cole have joined the party this year, but to Sharp, "the clothes are the stars". Try telling that to Antonio.

Endline: Your M&S

Mastercard 1999

Agency: McCann Erickson

A middle manager fights through a Planes, Trains and Automobiles nightmare to get back home in time for Christmas. A small epic of schmaltz that even manages to make us feel good about a credit-card company.

Endline: Getting home for Christmas... Priceless

COI Road Safety, Drink Driving 2000

Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers

Not all great Christmas commercials have a feel-good effect. Produced for the Central Office of Information, this is a truly horrific film montage of real-life car-crash victims, made all the more chilling when set against Wizzard's hit single, "I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday". It formed part of the Government's long-term anti-drink driving campaign. Variations of the ad used school choirs singing "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells". The shockingly explicit nature of the images divided opinion as to the effectiveness of the ad.

Endline: Drinking and driving is one Christmas tradition we can all do without

Hellmann's Mayonnaise 1982

Agency: The Boase massimi Pollitt Partnership

"It was July before we had to feed the cat again," runs the voiceover by Bob Carolgees, minus his glove puppet Spit the Dog, in the Tiswas presenter's finest advertising moment. The ad presents Hellmann's as the solution to the old Turkey leftovers dilemma, but also debunks the idea that this is a brand that only exists during the summer months. According to the IPA, this campaign increased Hellmann's sales volume by a third.

Endline: Don't save it for the summer

Oxo cubes 1986

Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Linda Bellingham was the nation's favourite mum for 16 years of Oxo ads. In this one, she invests some sizzle into making leftover turkey go the whole week. Daughter: "Are these kebabs turkey?" Bellingham: "Turkish." Oxo changed course shortly afterwards with a campaign that highlighted "How we live today", in which a couple becomes so overwhelmed by the smell of gravy they end up having it away on the cooker.

Endline: Oxo

Irn Bru 2006

Agency: The Leith Agency

The fizzy-drink maker spoofed Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, much to the irritation of the author, who complained in a letter to The Times that such "crass exploitation" of his work "cast a charming glow over products which are so charmless". Which is tough on one of Scotland's national beverages. The ad shows a boy taunting a snowman with his can of drink against the backdrop of a mock Aled Jones soundtrack: "Now I'm falling through the air/ I wonder where I'm going to land/ He nicked my Irn-Bru/ And let go of my hand." In the days before Harry Potter, when merchandising rights were less than watertight, Briggs's work was vulnerable to abuse, he has complained. His most famous character has also adorned toilet roll, and buckets of KFC in Japan.

Endline: Have a phenomenal Christmas

Royal Mail 1998

Agency: Bates

Advertising has become critical for the Royal Mail, as it faces increased competition, diminishing margins and industrial unrest. This ad, a reminder of the monopoly days, is part of the "I saw this and thought of you" campaign. Here we see a pair of comedy Christmas spectacles presented as the perfect gift for the man who has everything.

Endline: What would you send?