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Expert Comment: Behind the sparkle of this year's Christmas ads

moon2 Friday 6 November 2015

Dr Jacqui Miller, Head of Department of Media and Communication at Liverpool Hope University, gives her verdict on this year's Christmas ads and asks - is there a class bias behind the sparkle? 

It is that time of year when the nights are have drawn in, daylight is rapidly receding and the leaves are falling, that we all need a little Magic and Sparkle in our lives. The fact that you will know exactly to what I am referring (your Marks and Spencer of course), without the brand being explicitly named, shows what a powerful marketing tool and indeed, shared cultural phenomenon the Christmas TV advertisement has become.

Standing in the elevator of Cambridge John Lewis on November 1st I noticed a poster proclaiming ‘Give with Love’, which made me think with some anticipation about their forthcoming advert, whilst also pondering the clever semantics of an apparently simple few words. Guilt, the familiar friend of the copywriter is evoked by the exhortation to ‘give’ (we don’t want to seem mean, especially to those we love). We are only able to ‘give’, apparently by buying from John Lewis, but the taint of filthy lucre is offset by the justification of giving and receiving love.

This poster was the advertising equivalent of the cinematic ‘teaser trailer’, and there is something to be learned from the strategic release of the Christmas adverts. The more ‘downmarket’ brands, Lidl and Asda both launched on November 1st, while John Lewis is waiting until November 6th, with M&S, arguably the ‘gold standard’ retaining exclusivity until November 8th. Indeed, the class bias with regard to target market is fascinating to the cultural theorist. Asda’s advert self-consciously targets a working class audience. From the outset, it also takes a brash approach. With the slogan ‘Light Up Everything’, we see a family driving a fairy-lights bedecked car that is topped by an illuminated reindeer and which recalls the ‘Mutts Cuts’ car from Dumb and Dumber, before arriving home to a house and garden that seriously threaten to exhaust the national grid. The Christmas fun includes ‘snogging’, and after lunch, characters are audibly snoring. Everything, even the snow, is deliberately fake and in Asda’s words ‘over the top’, also playing on the moment by references to #Christmas.

The ‘discounters’, Lidl and Aldi, have gone through a curious metamorphosis since the 2007 financial crisis. Once the cultural as well as literal bargain basement retailers, they have since gained middle-class loyalty for their low prices for high-end products. The Lidl advert speaks to this market. Taking place in the ‘Lidl School of Christmas’ it resembles nothing so much as a festive version of the Great British Bake-Off with its emphasis on ironic self-improvement (how to make the perfect left-over sandwich), and inclusiveness. Characters represent the UK as a universal nation, and several characters are cosily coded as gay. It also has the Bake-Off’s love of a pun, cheekily referencing rival Tesco with the slogan ‘Every Lidl at Christmas’.

Waitrose has components of both Asda and Lidl’s ads but is deliberately opulent in its appeal. There are no left-overs here and while luxury food was fleetingly glimpsed in the Lidl school, for Waitrose it is the star, focussing on authenticity, from the scientific know-how of Heston Blumenthal’s puddings to hand crafted Stilton.

Of course Waitrose is but the food subsidiary of the grand master of the Christmas ad, John Lewis. This year’s offering has the usual lavish production values charting the long distance relationship between a little girl (whose home bears resemblance to a Nigella Lawson party sequence) and the Man in the Moon, from her first spotting him isolated and lonely, to her delivery, via balloons of a Christmas Day gift of a telescope, so they can stay in contact. Deliberately designed to evoke tears, there is presumably a message for the privileged to share their bounty with the less fortunate.

Sadly though, sharing is confined to material goods. The Man in the Moon (who could just as easily be the elderly neighbour next door) remains alone. John Lewis’ slogan is ‘Show Someone They’re Loved This Christmas’, has in common with all the TV ads that love is only shown by spending money. Christmas is represented by the tropes of fairy lights, food and gift wrapping, but is entirely devoid, not just of Christian references, but of any spirituality. The Man in the Moon now has a telescope; the elderly neighbour would much prefer an invitation to spend time with the family next door.

Department of Media and Communication at Liverpool Hope  

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