Candy snapshot: The Christmas ads round-up – 2016

Let’s start a tradition – an annual round-up of the premier Christmas adverts that reminded every citizen of the UK that something was happening and they had to spend some money. All in the greatest possible taste.

The great review of Christmas adverts 2016!

Come Sixth Night, it’s not just advisable to untack all the Christmas streamers, un-furl the tinsel from the Christmas tree and gently ease the felt antlers from the dog’s head… But it’s also wise to completely forget this festive season’s onslaught of budgetary saccharine…. As we begin the countdown to the coffers-swelling festive wave of baiting, competitive Yule-ads heading our way in 10 months or so. There’s an Epiphany!

While that sinks in, let’s sift through the top ads of 2016 to mark up the winners and mark down the utter losers. Let’s go back in time… You have been warned!

It was a year governed by inclusion and BREXIT, even if none of the UK contenders managed to craft a heartstring-tugging advert with the phrase “I’m going to fucking kill you” like Allegro in Poland.

Waitrose – Home for Christmas

“At Christmas, there’s nothing quite like Waitrose”

Waitrose took the bold step of crushing a robin for Christmas. But it’s okay, it was a digital robin. And actually, if you haven’t stopped watching, once you’ve recoiled in horror, it wasn’t actually a stamp. It was a brutal last minute attempt to save the poor robin’s life after unwisely flying into the rather unnatural habitat of a sea storm. Fortunately the fisherman belonging to that foot stamp not only has the time but also knowledge to nurse the robin back to health (while presumably slaughtering hundreds of fish for the Waitrose counter). And so, the young bird’s back on its journey before you can say, “hang on, this is pretty much the same as that snowman John Lewis ad from a few years ago”.

Fortunately though, the food chain has more action to go with its emotional wallop than that The Power of Love backed vacant eye snow-fest.  And there’s no chance that the young girl at the homely heart of this ad spares a thought for John Lewis Partnership gorging on its own ideas… As she promptly leaves the reunited robin couple she’s been preoccupied with for days to tuck into another bird (Presumably. We’re spared that hideous irony).

Apparently it’s territory rather than partner that dictates a robin’s mating patterns. Oh and those mating rituals start in January. But I’ll forgive all of that as long as the robin couple are actually called Heston and Delia.

Waitrose developed a matching and insufferably difficult mobile game to go with the concept, which sadly failed to offer any kind of mince pie as a prize. And I can’t forgive that.

Marks & Spencer – With Love from Mrs Claus

“Christmas with love”

M&S are that oddest of high street institutions, alternating rubbish Christmas ads and results warnings with stunning campaigns and favourable results. Somehow you expect more. More consistency and generally, more quality. And that’s what someone obviously took on board, in a remarkably bleak way. And sadly, they apparently also took it on, much like the writers of Sherlock, after binge-watching that last interminable James Bond film SPECTRE. If only they’d seen Skyfall or Casino Royale instead…

At M&S Towers, things have moved on from the simple high point of Twiggy, Shirley Bassey and the models du jour having a ice palace party (let’s call that an improved Die Another Day) to high concept blockbuster remarkably short of warmth. A well stocked, expertly produced effort, it somehow manages to rob itself of a glow while upping the nominal cosiness and stellar star power. Just one elf might have helped – or would that have made it really weird? There’s the impression that may have been just too ridiculous for this ‘realistic’ universe. Yes, this is the Dark Knight of Christmas adverts.  I also know at least one Australian who was upset at that throwaway (mumbled) joke at their country’s expense in the long cut – but unfortunately that mild and unnecessary storm in a stubby isn’t enough to reprieve it.

The main offender here, and boy do I feel a git for recoiling in nauseous pain every time I hear it, is the small brother’s painfully timorous voice. Excruciatingly reaching for the chalk-board of cute, when he should be far more comfortable in his clearly defined role of  ‘mischievous younger brother ‘.

There’s a nobility in the retreat to safer territory M&S, next time look at Batman v Superman instead.

Heathrow – Coming Home for Christmas

“Coming Home – The best gift of all”

Someone should be getting royalties for this idea – someone somewhere! Alright, it’s not the most original, but it’s an a bit of delight from an unexpected place… Flying straight in from Heathrow!

It achieves one of those rarest feats: deriving extra cuteness from transforming cuddly toys into… Humans. Extraordinary! They nailed this. It’s quite possibly the year’s best festive tear-jerker. And those aren’t tears at being stuck at Terminal 5 on Christmas Eve – but from a short film sound-tracked by Chas and Dave! Cuddly bliss.

Amazon- there was a Priest and an Imam 

Amazon stole an early march in 2016 with a social responsible, lightly humorous treatise on the universal, crippling, unrelenting approach of old age that has us all in its sights. With a liltingly delivered anti-anti-Mulslim rhetoric behind it, it’s a lovingly cut ad that keeps the punchline just right – even on repeated viewings. It’s mildly reminiscent of the old Yellow Pages J.R .Hartley ads, and the mega-retailer deserves some credit for that. A solid, social and conscious effort, although one that leapt from the blocks so early it’s difficult to relate it to the festive period.

I guess, that was kind of the point…

Coca Cola  – Holidays are Coming

“Taste the feeling”

Horror. Pure unmitigated horror. That’s what I thought with relish when the first three seconds of the ad were released as a teaser on 19 November (officially starting the Christmas season a respectful distance behind X-Factor and Strictly). What a bold move, I thought, they’ve promised something new, dangerous, edgy – a horror!

It was the 80th anniversary of the death of MR James of course, the master of the (Christmas) horror tale. Clearly his influence had reverberated in festive advertising far more than anyone realised, I rationalised. I can’t adequately express the sheer joy I felt at this giant of the beverage industry, shifting away from their such an established Christmas brand embracing this new genre without at least 18 tablespoons of sugar.

Sadly, inevitably, the joy was short-lived.

Yes, the framing, the tension, the menace, the anticipation , the one child, the lone bell… It was all just a precursor for those Coca-Cola trucks. A false dawn. Should have known.

It’s always the real thing.

H&M – Come Together

H&M Lines – Winter Express.

H&M and Adam & Eve/DDB probably nailed the coup of the festive period by snaring a Wes Anderson mini-masterpiece. The full promo is a work of loving brilliance, steeped in his classic style, mixing retro, slow takes with symmetry. And. Mixing symmetry with retro, slow takes. It’s three and a half minutes of loveliness, although I’ve been on the wrong-end of a Grand Budapest Hotel-bashing too many times not to appreciate that Anderson isn’t everyone’s cup of vintage tea.

But really: that first tracking shot, then the shift to the perpendicular as the plan’s realised. The hovering train corridor we’re left hovering in. The meticulous logic of the sparse cuts is only broken when we’re chucked full on into the boy’s apprehensive sense of wonder in the last 20 seconds – when the music shifts from (always a winner) Little Drummer Boy to (bona fide classic) Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Oh it’s so good – and it’s on brand. Look at all that merch! I can only hope Wes Anderson adapts an Agatha Christie one day.

Sainsbury’s – The Greatest Gift

Christmas is for Sharing

Well, H&M weren’t exactly under the top, but Sainsbury’s stole the biscuit. The uber food chain’s struggled to rein in the scale since losing talisman Jamie Oliver a few years ago, he who was quite happy serving up some ‘qual cuisine’ in their packed car parks. 2015’s Mog the Cat campaign didn’t particularly set the small screen alight, but it certainly shifted a lot of books in-store.

2016 year’s effort however, was even more staggering in its scale and ambition. I mean really, in order to finish it on time, they must have had Ray Harryhausen storyboarding it between skeletons and dinosaurs. It’s a gigantic, full colour, cute, impassioned, inclusive, hi-octane song and dance number with a moral – another ad clocking in at a storming three and a half minutes. And despite the traditional essence, it’s so modern it mentions twerking and is… Sung by James Corden!

What’s wrong with that? Well, the only problem with this wonderfully self-indulgent tale of cloning gone right is (and they’re not the only company on this list to make the error)… They forgot the product.

And that’s a reluctant product recall in my book.

John Lewis – Buster the Boxer

“Gifts that everyone will love”

All hail John Lewis. Alright, after criticism of the Sainsbury’s effort, it might be a bit rich to suggest a lone trampoline is product placement enough. But John Lewis, like Saino’s are very good at making self-sustaining adverts. And Sainsbury’s wasn’t shifting cloning machines this Christmas. Stuffed toys of Buster the Boxer abounded in the run up to Christmas –  their flagship store even featured an interactive zone of Buster’s world! If only boxers said, “zoinks!”

Yes, it potentially ruins the concept of Santa. Yes, it could all too easily be cast as 2016 political commentary. Yes, we all know the reality of woodland creatures making use of man-made constructs… I stepped in exactly what those foxes consider their kind of Christmas present the night before this ads premiered. Let. Me. Tell. You.

But what’s crucially important at Christmas?  Well, they nailed it. Because for the first time in a few years, probably since that brilliant house-trained penguin Monty in 2014, they remembered the sense of humour. Well played JL, now don’t forget it again (the huge uplift in social media views year-on-year should help!).

2017 hindsight update: Relatively, while not a classic year for Christmas adverts, even amid the social and economic uncertainty that tugged on most ad concepts, the plan worked. Sainsbury’s in particular, managed to surprise with a 0.1% overall rise in sales, and M&S pushed its clothing and homeware divisions up a staggering 2.3%. Oh, and John Lewis was up as well, but unsure how much of that was actually Buster the boxer shaped. Intriguingly enough, it appears to have boosted presents for pets themselves.

See you next festive-tide!

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