The Candy Wrap: Christmas Ad Review 2017

“Reliving the adverts, so you can’t forget them” My second Christmas ad wrap – that makes a tradition!

Here’s my round-up of this year’s best of British festive ads – the ones we’ve ALL waited a year for – could they ever live up to that hype? Well, let’s jump right in, repeating the familiar mantra, “Something’s happening and we have to spend some money…” 

Warning: features a lot of fur, stuffed into giant elephant-sized holes of compassion and integration, packed out with sibling love. But it’s all in good measure. After all, this is a British Christmas and not a Superbowl ad break…

Unless you couldn’t give an elf of course, like Poundland. As that decimal retailer put it, “We’re proud of a campaign that’s only cost £25.53 and is being touted as the winning marketing campaign this Christmas!” And on that spade around the face, here are the guys who spent a little bit more…

Heathrow – It’s a Wonderful Flight

> A not-so Brief Encounter

2016’s unexpected heavy-hitters, return with a defiant ‘if it ain’t broke’ tactic – the same one found in households every Christmas, when squashed and knarled decorations are unpacked, but you somehow manage to make do for “just one more year”.

Like any good sequel, this year’s Heathrow advert is bigger, bolder and better. It’s a punchy two minutes in fact – more than the average, but mercifully short of the 15 hours James Corden stole to sing his Christmas fable for Sainsbury’s in 2016.

Sure, the concept of the Heathrow Bears (as we’re actively encouraged to call them – the hashtag hanging in front like a prenup), has lost some of its purity and nostalgic surprise a year on. But if you’re a fan of watching bears in increasing states of undress (there is far more nudity this year), this is the seasonal pick for you. For the ‘bearst’ results shut your eyes before they transform into grandparents, letting your imagination fill in a disfiguring, painful metamorphosis seldom seen since An American Werewolf in London. Nothing wrong with a little Christmas horror – and for me, that’s far less horrible than the “It’s a wonderful flight” tagline that, surely, equates a single trip with a lifetime?

Well done Heathrow. While the question of quite why an airport needs a Christmas ad remains gleefully unanswered, they’re clearly ring-fencing more and more budget to mitigate any negative headlines over the festive period. And so far, they haven’t fallen into the Warburton’s furry trap. Can’t wait to see what happens next year.

Marks and Spencer – Spend it well

> note those oh-so-necessary subtitles

“Oh, f*ck you little bear”

You know what it’s like. You elbow in on the merchandising model that John Lewis raises to a new peak every year, bolt it irresistibly onto an indelibly safe children’s property (screen Paddington had so far made it through 2017 unblemished…), and then become a tabloid story for all the sweary reasons. You could almost see the colour draining from the faces of the marketing team on the day this promo launched –  like marmalade pouring into vats at Peruvian customs post-Brexit…

Still, M&S can hardly bemoan that modegreen given the pun-ambiguity of their tagline.

Brilliantly, no one ever thought the word in question was anything other than “thanks” and the furry furore failed to dent the saccharine, slapstick, and wholly obvious redemption the oblivious bear affords Mark Benton’s comedy thief.

It’s a little too London-centric, a little too old-fashioned (both come with this sandwich of a concept), but following last year’s Mrs Claus advert – shot with all the cinematographic warmth of SPECTRE – it burns up the screen like a Balrog’s armpit. It’s a triumphant return to colour not seen at M&S since their golden Christmas age of Dame Shirley Bassey singing Pink. And any grinching about the CGI can be shared with the Paddington film series itself (it hardly needs to be Life of Pi).

Like a good Paddington skit, any given moment leaves the bear open to accusations of aiding and abetting, handling stolen goods, ABH, unlawful entering, reckless endangerment, dangerous driving, and malicious damage. So, I’m not sure this was made in the full spirit of brand synergy. But I’m all in favour of the Peruvian Spectacled Bear reaching a new peak in the year of his creator, Michael Bond’s death. If nothing else, it’s raised the bar for National Treasures – at least until Danny Dyer and Basil Brush reclaim Parliamentary Sovereignty during next year’s Doctor Who Christmas special.

John Lewis – Moz the Monster

> It can take years to get to know your roommate

Less an advert, more a news item.

The advert that has ‘how to watch’ articles published shortly before it’s released knows no bounds when it comes to pressure. It almost defies advertising, but don’t tell them that.

M&S weren’t the only ones to feel the Christmas ad backlash this year. John Lewis‘ choice falls a little short in the originality stakes, as well as prompting some stern, but wholly level criticism from illustrator Chris Riddell.

Unfortunately, it’s with Moz that things fall down, and not just on the IP front. After last year’s polished boxer Buster, the tie-in toy looks a tad rushed. Then again, missing out on some Morrissey tickets the morning this ad was released might have left me a little sensitive. Sharing a name with that returning contrary quiff is one of several odd misfortunes facing this campaign, but there are some odd wonders. For instance, the football buried in the monster’s fur is a lovely indictment of the national game.

As far as the concept goes, I can’t decide if this is a remake of the Monty the Penguin advert from 2015 or completely the opposite. Ambiguity can’t have been what they were aiming for. One unfortunate side effect of choosing a giant monster, as opposed to a penguin, is that the merchandise is dwarfed in the store’s spin-off advertising.

Much bigger than the concept, oddly, is the ever-important cover-song-de-campaign. Three years ago, they leaned towards solo-Lennon, this one falls to a MccCartney-led Beatles classic courtesy of Elbow. Frankly, I struggle to watch it without filling in (Sir) Ringo’s original heavy drum rolls. Others apparently can’t stop singing the Abbey Road medley, following through with Carry That Weight and The End, for the rest of the ad break. Some things just can’t be broken and that includes the draw of a John Lewis ad.

Looking at the rest of this list, it’s clear that John Lewis still has this stitched up. Despite a mildly different emphasis, there’s a consistency, from coverage to song to filming, that other brands fail to capture year-on-year.

Still, this sums up the curse of the JL machine: it all seems a little too safe. While it’s a lovely version of Golden Slumbers, performed by a national treasure of a band, imagine if they’d hired Paul McCartney to cover On a Day Like This instead? Is it too much of  a stretch to imagine JL will be mixing it up like a Christmas morning punch next year? Without seeing this Christmas’ sales figures, I think they can afford to think about it.

Waitrose – Christmas Together

> The danger of Christmas drinking

Sticking with the preeminent Christmas cooperative (sorry co-op), those hoping for a sequel to last year’s earnest flight of a robin are in for a shock: this isn’t two minutes of two small avian skeletons being peeled from a fisherman’s boot. Last year it was Home for Christmas with ne’er a hint of Chris Rea, and this year Christmas Together with barely a hint of CGI.

2017’s a far more human affair, with the jolly tale of a village community cruelly punished for their festive merriment by the elements. Yet another Christmas ad with considerable horror potential. But fortunately, before any of the party have a chance to uncover a recording of the Necronomicon in the cellar, the neighbours are rescued. Well fortunate for us. The neighbours are pretty much disgusted.  Pitting community against the consumerism of Christmas in a rural setting doesn’t seem to quite fit Waitrose‘s catchment audience. But it’s less John Lewis than last year’s effort, and that’s a wise choice.

Waitrose produce might not be synonymous with pub grub, but at least one supermarket has done it right. This is the best of the bunch at putting the product at the heart of the narrative and giving us a punchline. All in black and white too.

House of Fraser – Bring Merry Back

> Sister, sisters…

Typical for HoF there’s barely an immigration theme or strand of fur to be found in their 2017 advert. In fact, from a rather difficult basis of sibling Christmas love through the years (marginally fictional?), it poses a hugely relevant philosophical question: Who the Hell took Merry out of Christmas?

Simple, lovingly filmed, and with one a massive plus: Wheeling out the Staple Singers (missed a trick there, Staples Online) is the most exciting musical developments since Boots pulled Ernie K-Doe out of their stocking a whole bloody decade ago (seriously, it was 10 YEARS).

Boots – #Showthemyouknowthem

> Er, Sister, sisters…

But hang on, what’s this? Talking of the mega-pharmacy, Boots have also dug into the sisters narrative this Christmas! Well, that’s a bit awkward. Like turning up to a party with the exact same pair of identical twin sisters to someone else. Someone didn’t get the Eastenders memo – the BBC’s flagship soap is fast-making a festive tradition of killing sisters off and only the High Street can help!

Boots‘ is a simpler, less romanticised concept than House of Fraser‘s, and probably stronger for it. But it’s also hung out to dry by that leading hashtag. You wouldn’t put a virus at the heart of your Christmas campaign – so, why shout your wish for viral marketing so loudly?

Sainsbury’s – Every Bit of Christmas

> Pack-it-all-in-a-sing-along

The most literal tagline of the season. Sainsbury’s 2016 effort may still be burned on the inside of your eyelids – the Frozen-baiting animation classic I called, “a reluctant product recall.” Well, Sainsbury’s can’t be accused of forgetting the product in 2017. There’s a sprout in every frame.

Having exploited almost all of Earth’s resources with last year’s ‘epic’, Sainsbury’s laudably opted for a more wholesome brand campaign in January 2017. And by unifying it with their festive special they’ve somehow managed to simultaneously trim down the excess and pack in as much Christmas as they can. Where Warburton’s once had every Muppet, Sainsbury’s only need Kermit. Where the BBC have taken a retail approach to the season, Sainsbury’s have kidnapped Jim Royle.

Probably the funniest and most gleeful of the festive ads, well done to Saino’s for taking the kind of high concept you’d normally find in a DC Comics crisis storyline, and bottling it down to less than two minutes.

Some have questioned the rejection of the supermarket’s previously strong line of ‘inyerface’ promos, but this new emphasis on efficient advertising has won me round. I’m digging a pared-back Sainsbury’s, or as I might just nonchalantly call them now, Sing-a-long-a-Saino’s

The Best of the Rest

Dear deities of wasted advertising revenue, where to begin?

This was the year BBC decided to take on not only the commercial stations, but their sponsors. Unfortunately, the beautifully produced stop-motion piece, with its knowingly modest title and adorably framed message, only made up for their distinct lack of content this Christmas as much as it drew attention to it.

> The Guardian reports the backlash to Tesco’s 2017 Christmas advert “FEATURING A MUSLIM FAMILY”

Not so lucky were Tesco, whose emphasis on diversity, togetherness, and the ‘every-family’ backfired in yet another tabloid storm in a teacup. They helped elevate Shakin’ Stevens to the accolade of most ubiquitous Christmas song, but this advert is destined to be forgotten in the supermarket’s long line of mediocre efforts. Such contrariness doesn’t help me!

Argos deserve some credit for wisely, or unwisely, taking the piss out of the mass-production, homogenised retail shopping with their ‘Ready for take-off’ campaign. Must say, I’ve never seen anyone at Argos go to that extreme, nor with those ears. Despite the budget and an evident attempt to ally Santa’s workshop with a Star Wars-style sleighride to the stars, it sadly comes across as the Blue Peter Tracy Island version of the real, if cold, deal Marks & Spencer pulled out last year.

After 2016’s stirling effort courtesy of Wes Anderson effort, H&M went the kid-centric fairytale route this year, with no less Hollywood glamour. Quite probably the most surreal of the season, I hope they shifted more than sparkling accessories and pretty dresses.

One question hanging over this season of (good) advertising, is how Apple could follow the utterly bizarre brand association of last year’s SINGING FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER?  Well  La-La-Sam-Smith of course… Enchanting, beautifully filmed, very kind on battery life it may be, but it falls into that good old Christmas trap: It would be brilliant if it was only trying to flog Bluetooth earphones.

With the quest to recoup store visits and budget through tie-in merchandise a barely disguised secret in modern Christmas advertising, special mention to Aldi for sticking by their highly desirable root crop. I say highly desirable, based on its ebay performance, as Kevin the carrot returned having put his fame and fortune to good effect by starting a family. What an astounding advert, pulling in references to Tim Burton, Agatha Christie, Jim Broadbent and a lame joke. “Amazing”.

Lastly, top marks to Co-op for dodging the bullet, or pea, that Tesco took, to serve up an imaginative, pacey twist on the togetherness theme. Particularly brilliant use of Blur’s Tender, although, part of me wishes they’d led with their emergency Christmas dinner.

And on that optimistic time-saving note, have a bloody great New Year – see you next festive-tide!

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