Christmas ads aren’t heartwarming or offensive – we’re just bored

A recent controversy involving Marks & Spencer is just the tip of the iceberg, writes Louis Chilton. It’s time we put an end to the tyranny of the ‘festive advert’

Wednesday 08 November 2023 16:36 GMT
Wadd about it: Hannah Waddingham features in not one but two Christmas ads this year
Wadd about it: Hannah Waddingham features in not one but two Christmas ads this year (Bailey’s)

I’m a sucker for Christmas. Not in any kind of profound Christian sense, but in a way that is base, commercial and comfortingly smooth-brained. Hook the fairy lights to my veins; festoon my face with baubles. For 40-odd days each year, I am all too happy to genuflect at the altar of tat. But even a raging Santaphile like myself has to draw the line somewhere – and by that, I mean Christmas adverts.

Last week, high-street retailer Marks & Spencer caused a ruckus when it shared an outtake from its new Christmas advert depicting multi-coloured hats being burnt in a fireplace. In what M&S said was a completely inadvertent piece of iconography, the hats bore the colours of the Palestinian flag. It’s not the first piece of festive advertising to kick up a storm, of course. Last year, a Waitrose advert had to be edited after skin cancer charity Melanoma UK complained that it glorified sun tans. Greggsheads will, of course, recall the bakery chain’s infamous “sausage roll Christ” ad of 2017; in 2012, Asda were forced to apologise after an advert proselytising the “mums behind every great Christmas” was criticised for ramming gender norms down everyone’s stockings. Christmas adverts are a minefield of potential scandals. But that’s not the only reason they need to stop.

In recent years, Christmas advert one-upmanship has metastasised. Following the lead of bougie homeware shop John Lewis, whose mawkish story-based ads have been embraced by some as a veritable Christmas tradition, most every high street chain now produces their own tinsel-draped festive ads. More than any specific product or service, these adverts often simply try to sell the abstract idea of Christmas. Here’s a raccoon, scurrying across the city to return a toy to a child. Come to Lidl. Here’s a CGI child, coming to terms with the impending birth of a younger sibling. Watch Disney+. Here’s a Christmas doll that’s come to life. Shop at Argos.

None of these are really likely to offend anyone (unless you’ve an allergy to schmaltz). But the barrage of identically twee vignettes speaks to a dearth of originality in the advertising world. There are, of course, exceptions to this malaise. Back in the day, several of the Christmas adverts were successful in their efforts to stand out from the usual commercial noise. And word is, the new John Lewis advert falls on the right side of cloying.  But the point remains: on the whole, Christmas ads have lost their lustre, with the market saturated to bursting point. Even John Lewis’s annual ad feels by now like rote formula. Hannah Waddingham – whose stint as a Eurovision presenter back in May supposedly fast-tracked her to National Treasure status – is in two separate adverts. If she keeps this up, she’s going to get a reputation as a corporate gun-for-hire: the people’s darling who wouldn’t stop flogging crimbo merch on the telly.

The Christmas Industrial Complex is too big to fail at this point. For advertisers, the holiday has become a time for their work to be shoved into the spotlight, having been all but ignored for the rest of the year. The insistence on the significance of these frivolous creations is unrelenting. This month, email inboxes of journalists such as myself have been filled with invitations to fully-fledged screenings of TV advertisements – grand, secretive affairs with a pomp more befitting the next season of Stranger Things than a 30-second advert for frozen peas. It feels dystopian. The advert has become product.

When something like the M&S “flag-burning” debacle occurs, it makes it feel as if the whole glittery enterprise of Christmas adverts is more hassle than it’s worth. Chalk it up to bad timing, or inattentive production design, sure, but the fact is, Christmas adverts are turning into a lightning rod for controversy. If we were to bin the whole tradition, what exactly would we be losing? A nauseating story of childhood wonder? A slow piano cover of an Eighties power ballad? It’s not worth it. We can only hope these interminable ads have seen their last Noel.

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