If the Victorians turned Christmas ads into an art form, today’s offerings blur the boundary between culture and commerce entirelyby Chris Townsend / November 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
It has become uncontroversial to suggest that, at some point, we as a species crossed a line, entering as we did so into the brave new world of the “Christmas advert.” Common wisdom has it that the John Lewis Partnership carried us across that threshold: for ten years in a row, the brand has attempted to up the ante with their Christmas ads. They first struck consumer gold with ‘The Longest Wait’ in 2011—the one where we think a child is greedily awaiting his Christmas presents, but it turns out he was impatient to give a present to his parents instead. Now, at the time of writing, almost as many people have watched John Lewis’s latest ad on its official Youtube channel as tuned in for the Queen’s Christmas Day speech last year. More than a newly-forming tradition, the Christmas advert has become a phenomenon unto itself.
But what is so distinct about today’s advertisements? After all, Christmas Day mass was elbowed out by mass-consumerism decades ago, and seasonal conspicuous consumption is hardly a new thing. The first shop display windows appeared in the late eighteenth century, and Christmassy shop windows were turned into an art form by the Victorians.
In this sense, the latest Christmas ads follow a long tradition, in the footsteps of the decades-old OXO family Christmases. They present sugary scenes of family togetherness set in perpetually snowy swathes of suburbia, where the dinner table is always laden with a plump turkey and a gaudy tree sits in the corner. They are often hyper-sentimental affairs which frequently tap into borderline-creepy Victorian mythologies of childhood (John Lewis’s Monty the Penguin was, at heart, a child’s understanding of adult relationships).
And yet there is also something new here— not least in the we talk about these ads. Your favourite newspaper will already have “reported” on this year’s offering. The Telegraph website invites me to run the full gamut of 2017 Christmas offerings — including Tesco, Lidl, Argos, and Toys R Us — with embedded Youtube clips, and asks, “which is your favourite?” The Mirror and the Daily Mail have similar round-ups; even the left-leaning Guardian offers a synopsis and verdict on the John Lewis offering. Column inches have been devoted to whether Aldi’s advert about a talking carrot is much good, and whether Sainsbury’s missed the mark this year with its sing-a-long number. And now here I am, writing about people writing about them.
The point here is that adverts, in the past, have rarely been raised to the status of objects for criticism. Where they have, they were usually exceptional for some reason—perhaps overstepping the lines of taste and decency, as with Paddy Power’s “money back if he walks” campaign about disabled athlete Oscar Pistorius. Never before has this much critical focus been routine.We have developed an annual expectation to be delighted by them—or, more so, emotionally stimulated. There are people who will cry at anything John Lewis puts out because they have come to expect their ads to induce lachrymosity—and then complain on social media if the advertisement fails to make them cry. By fawning over the ads, we have ritualized them, and by ritualizing them we have raised them above the status of mere advertisements.
This has all led to a startling state of affairs in which televised Christmas adverts now act as a starter’s pistol for the season. It’s not Christmas until they appear, and then suddenly it is, from early November. The precedent for this aspect of the modern Christmas ad obviously belongs to one of the few truly comment-worthy ones that came well before the John Lewis epoch: since 1995, Coca-Cola has used its “holidays are coming!” tagline along with footage of its familiar red trucks, and the familiar red Santa Claus, to market successfully its bottles of brown sugar-water. It seems likely that even Coke’s marketing department was astonished by how ingrained the notion has become in the collective conscious that “Christmas doesn’t begin until you see the Coke trucks.”
But, of course, it is the marketing departments that lie behind the evolution of the Christmas ads, and their new “movie in miniature” format (Marks and Spencer’s advert is being talked about as a “short” featuring Paddington bear, and barely as an advert at all). This has everything to do with the current, pervasive emphasis on “content,” itself a side-product of online advertising.
In the internet age, entertainment and advertising are hard to distinguish, to the extent that it’s not always clear if Instagram “influencers” are trying to flog us products or give us sincere advice (to the chagrin of the Advertising Standards Agency). It’s no wonder that advertisements have been raised to the status of a pseudo-artistic form, nor that the qualities of the products have been to some extent sidelined. They promise to trade brand recognition for bottled emotion, and offer tinsel-bedecked mawkishness in exchange for the opportunity to dangle a product in your general direction.
Marks and Spencer’s current slogan—‘Spend It Well,’ which they have been touting all year—speaks volumes about this culture. The company claims, in their press release, that it’s “designed to inspire and enable people to make every moment special.” At first, it was amusing to think that the marketing department had overlooked the other reading, in the imperative mood: spend your cash well. But now, seeing it splashed all over the Christmas editions of their carrier bags and in the hands of eager shoppers, I’m less sure that wasn’t the point in the first place.
Spend it well: our cash and our free time, rolled together until they’re hard to tell apart within an advertising slogan that tells us to spend. Could it be that in the new era of adverts as tear-inducing mini-films, we have forgotten to distrust brands and advertising to such an extent that they can now simply tell us, directly, to part with our money? It is as if the emotional appeals of these adverts bypass the part of us that is suspicious of commerce. And it hardly matters, because Paddington behaved so sweetly, and Moz the Monster did indeed bring us to the point of weeping.
Thus the distinguishing feature of the modern Christmas advert doesn’t lie so much in its lofty ambitions, but rather in its ruling category confusion: a loss of sight (caused by teary eyes) of the line between entertainment and advertising, and between cultural and commercial products.