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Expert Comment: Marketing the spirit of the 'British Christmas'

Dr Anthony Ridge-Newman, Lecturer in Digital Media, offers a brief comparative analysis of this year's Christmas ads and asks – what marketing principles are evident in this years’ ads, and what do they say about the cultural identity of a contemporary British Christmas?

Here we are again, in the run-up to ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, or, at least, so goes the Andy Williams’ Christmas classic. The Christmas lights are going up in every high street from the Scilly Isles to the Shetlands. Store windows are being transformed into winter wonderlands. With sounds of jingling bells, our commercial television channels are springing to life with animated Santa, snowmen and reindeer during the ad breaks. These are all ways the retail sector entices us to splurge our November and December salaries on a whole range of items and gifts in store and online. The consumer-centric approach to contemporary Christmas culture urges us to believe that we can achieve that coveted ‘perfect’ Christmas through the buying of Christmassy things.

However, recent trends in adverts by leading retailers have often gone beyond the simple rational approach to marketing, which aims to give us a simple reason why we should buy into a brand or certain products. Mature brands tend to advertise themselves in a manner that goes beyond the rational in order to encourage audiences to connect with the brand at an emotional level. This approach helps bind the audience, or, rather, potential shoppers, to the retailer. Christmas ads are a prime example of that sort of marketing approach. The big names like M&S, John Lewis and Tesco, annually go to war in order to produce the most critically acclaimed Christmas ads. These days, it seems the big name Christmas ads, somewhat ceremonially, mark the commercialised start to the run-up to Christmas.

In view of these ads becoming a significantly reported news item in themselves, across many print and broadcast media outlets, it is perhaps timely to analyse them as marketing instruments and examine how they speak to our wider culture and festive identity. Is it all about the battle for the best Christmas ad? Or is it about brand awareness and Christmassy credibility? Or is it simply about the retail war and a representation of pure unadulterated capitalism? Perhaps it is a combination of all of such factors. Moreover, through using the M&S and Tesco comparisons below, it seems that these annual Christmas marketing exercises have become firmly integrated within the spirit of the British Christmas. In the contemporary context, it is a Christmas that has seemingly advanced away from its central Christian origins to one that is emotionally rooted in secularised and capitalist values, e.g. the pleasures of eating festive feasts and the giving and receiving gifts. Admittedly, these Christmassy traditions are rooted in aspects of Christianity, and indeed the nativity narrative. However, the secular framing of these contemporary festive customs by the advertisers seems to be devoid of the Christian basis for Christmas – or is it?

The 2017 M&S Christmas advert features the moral conversion of a thief, who is mistaken by Paddington Bear for Santa. Paddington converts the robber’s thievery into Santa-style gift giving opportunities across the local snow laden neighbourhood. The ad fits well with our cultural notions of a cosy Christmas and creates a certain atmosphere that encourages the viewer to feel warm and fuzzy, via the morals of an animated bear. In marketing terms, the use of Paddington Bear is genius. He is himself a current and popular brand. The implicit suggestion is that, in a senseless and cynical world, an M&S Christmas is one of innocence and magic. We connect emotionally to the innocent goodness embodied by Paddington's character, which encourages us to 'spend it well' this Christmas with M&S. There is a moral message that hints at the origins of Christmas and, yet, the take home message is that living well at Christmas involves spending and consuming via a particular retailer.

This year’s Tesco ad takes a similar approach to creating an atmosphere. However, in contrast to M&S, Tesco injects its ad with a distinct sense of festive realism in featuring images of squabbling families; the pulling of crackers; and the wearing of Christmas hats. The Tesco ad confronts head-on some of the trials and tribulations of Christmas preparations, which tend to centre on that all-important Christmas commodity and staple of the Christmas dinner – the turkey. The symbolism of the golden glazed Christmas turkey being whipped out of an Aga cooker creates, again, a loaded, somewhat Dickensian, emotional response that is intrinsically linked to the image of the perfect British Christmas. The accompanying slogan that ‘everyone’s welcome at Tesco’ this Christmastime combines it’s familiar ‘every little helps’ message with one of inclusivity - that there is a ‘turkey for everyone’. This sentiment is embodied within the ad through a diverse cast of individuals from a variety of age groups, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and what appears to be a same sex couple with a baby. As a central message, this ad takes a deeper step into capitalist secularism, because it suggests that Christmas is about the coming together of all to engage in the consumption of a key commodity that has very little to with the origins of Christmas.

That said, although the more cynical view would be to argue the more capitalist and secularist line, the M&S moral message of giving and the universal inclusivity evident in the Tesco ad do arguably demonstrate a connection to key themes that could be linked to the Christian origins of Christmas. How these two cases will compare with the much anticipated John Lewis Christmas ad is yet to be seen. Latest reports suggest its release is imminent, likely to be on 9 November 2017. Whatever the result of the John Lewis ad, it is fairly certain that it will mirror the marketing approach taken by M&S and Tesco in that it will aim to create an atmosphere that encourages an emotional response from potential customers this Christmas. If last year’s ad is anything to go by, John Lewis are likely to take a similar approach to M&S’s #JoinTheBear campaign (M&S Christmas Advert 2017) by again encouraging viral customer-generated and interactive marketing through the use of a specific social media hashtag, like #BusterTheBoxer (John Lewis Christmas Advert, 2016). Perhaps it is a sign of things to come: a Happy digital Christmas everyone?!

Published on 20/03/2018