“Reliving the adverts, so you can’t forget them” – my annual round-up of UK advertising candy returns!

EVERY YEAR I START TALKING ABOUT THE SEASON’S BEST ADVERTS, BUT THAT’S REACHING… As usual, this round-up is a non-exhaustive list that stretches from the aspirational to the ubiquitous to the entirely misjudged. The real tradition lies in the usual suspects rubbing carrots, or plush doll carrots, with the derided and unfortunate. Buckle up!

But some things do change, and 2018 wore it on its sleeve. Has the rapidly evolving landscape of Adland throughout the past year made a difference? Could the societal shifts carry through to Christmas ads that have a year turnaround? Years in, have austerity and Brexit chaos just made the Christmas bombast of the past untenable? Obviously not if you’re Kevin the Carrot. But for the rest of us: yes, all of the above. Some major brands have put their money firmly on a new world where product emerges from the battered boom of concept, and the sea’s split in the middle.

Warning: features missing orang-utans, ever-present carrots, a delusional amount of horror, gloomy Matt Smith, evil parsnips, BBC temporal experiments, meta-cooperatives, tiny dancers, and … Apple finally getting it right?

For your horror fix (yes there is one), head to the best of the rest at the end. But there’s only one place to start…

Iceland – Say Hello to Rang-tan (Agency: Mother)

> The orang-utan in the room

Christmas ad season really kicked off in early November with news of this advert’s ‘banning’. By the middle of the month, a petition in favour of its screening had exceeded half a million signatures. But not everything was as it seemed. Experts sprung up in defence of palm oil, citing considerable benefits to the environment. Palm olive products were still to be found on Iceland shelves (they pledged to phase them out in their own products by the end of 2018). The villains on the piece, Clearcast, refuted the much-publicised reason for its rejection: The advert wasn’t too political; it was a rebadged version of one Greenpeace had already screened.

Recycling didn’t and couldn’t reprieve it. But the early shot (ie. pre-John Lewis (ish*) helped deliver a major sales lift for the chain. The advert itself stands tall as a lovely piece of animation in the year cell shading retreated. Most importantly, it signalled which side of the coin would win this year ad scrap. In December,  Kantar Millward Brown’s annual consumer research found relatable stories beat epic blockbusters, with Iceland on the top shelf. Its true legacy may be recorded as a major step forward in the measurement of offline success.

BBC – Wonderland (BBC Creative)

> Stop. Hammer the BBC time

Having fully realised the potential of the Christmas ad in 2017, the BBC tried to repeat the magic as it further banished its Christmas past. But 2018 meant live action, and that’s where it all went a bit wrong. Far across the universe, time-space blinked and temporal-sensitive races were wiped from existence, as the BBC harnessed a black hole to stop time so a mum could enjoy some quality time with her son.

The BBC insisted the film’s message was simple: “When you do manage to get some time with the ones you love, be sure to cherish it.” It duly went down like that final turkey sandwich. The last thing we want at Christmas is a heartwarming tale. The pure fiction of a son wanting to hang around the streets of his town with his mum grated many. The sidelining of the dad and the nature of the mum’s job wound up the rest. It is rather beautifully produced of course (alright, no black holes), but it’s the natty computer screen graphics of the mum’s arduous job that’ll stick with me. And that’s rather telling.

It didn’t help that some thunder was stolen by the BBC spending £10m on promoting its not-quite-fit-for-launch BBC Sounds app. Now, if the mum had been delayed trying to sort downloads on that…

What’s important is that this was the first Christmas film made in house under the Corporation’s new structure… And how many of the big corporates followed Auntie’s lead after their 2017 success (nicked their schtik!). They probably won’t be following this template in the apocalyptic struggle of Christmas 2019.

Sainsbury’s – The Big Night (Wieden & Kennedy)

> A star is reborn… Nevermind, look at the plug!

And here’s a case in point. Sainsbury’s really blind-sided themselves this year. In 2017, most major players managed to  avoid stepping on each other’s toes. This year, many a shoulder must have slumped at Sainsbury’s when John Lewis had the audacity to kick off a new Autumn ad war, with a Queen-backed school play skit*. It was so boisterous, the ripples nearly scuppered the Beeb’s time experiments, as it took a lead from the Corp’s 2017 Christmas ad. But it was Sainsbury’s that fell in the crossfire. Defiantly on the wrong side of history, this manages to tick all the boxes 2018 didn’t require. A slow start, an over-familiarity, a distinct lack of product. You know something’s up when the show’s stolen by a plug.

But really, what a display from the plug. People are still talking about it. it even won a focus spin-off.

McDonald’s – Reindeer Ready (Leo Burnett)

> I still haven’t forgiven them for stopping Root Beer

Hold up – McDonald’s pushing the veg? Of course they are, and on the way, pushing out the most conventional ad of the season. It’s a bit overlong and ticks a sickening number of boxes, but what could be more traditional than that?

Part of an expansive multi-route campaign, including giveaways and extreme hashtagging, it’s as if a million voices called out for their Large McReindeer Meal and were suddenly silenced. If you haven’t got time for Santa Claus: The Movie this year, this is the one for you.

Tesco – However you do Christmas (BBH London)

> If it’s broke, do polish it up

Nobody found more chagrin under their Christmas tree than Tesco last year. A diversity backlash scuppered them, but they’ve persevered. Sticking with BBH, they’ve shifted the emphasis on from unwitting turkeys to quality. This would be the first example of a Christmas ad campaign rebooting itself from the year before, if that wasn’t every Christmas advert ever. Tesco achieved a far better balance this year – a little funnier, a bit more stylised and a little more on product and self-deprecating. It helped the chain on to what looks like one of its strongest Christmas sales performances in years. Inoffensive is a hell of a pitch.

Marks and Sparks – Must Haves (Grey London)

> The Holly and the Gandy, now both are full brand-grown… 

Tesco may have hit the break earnestly, but it’s M&S who attempted to break the mould, turning the concept into the message. As some might see it, that’s breaking Christmas, and it’s not hard to see where the momentum will struggle. It’s unlikely this new Christmas stereotype will affect the strategy of any big High Street competitors.

Still, as a concept, it works. Combining a lot of what brands like Boots and House of Fraser have tried in recent years, bundling it up with star power, and pushing product over brand. M&S were ready to set out their new stall as customer-focussed, just like their stores, get it? It involved the surgical removal of blockbuster spectacular from their campaign, as a peculiarly racy start pinned Holly under a Christmas tree before the image of a rubber-gloved David Gandy etched into retinas. Creatives must have scratched their heads at times, and there’s a slight sorrow – not least for this column- that M&S’ peak will stay in the Ice Palace with Shirley Bassey an unbelievable 12 YEARS AGO. Still, a wise retreat from their woefully misheard saccharine brand traffic marmalade of 2017.

Aldi – Kevin the Carrot and the Wicked Parsnip (McCann UK)

 > Aldi’s orange hero returns with the worst puns in seasonal advertising

Some things are reliable. Bold innuendo once again fell to Aldi’s festive tuber. Remember, this is the carrot who can cause huge disruption in the guise of a plush toy, offline, and headlined one of the most astonishing adverts of 2017 (“Pea’d myself”).

This year, it’s very much the same again. Broadbent returns, Orange hubris is at peak, there’s pea golf and yes ANOTHER LAME JOKE. Sorry, two lame jokes. Talk about groundvegetable day. the rogue this year is an evil French parsnip – sales effect for this dastardly, cannibalistic (c’mon!) rogue vegetable as yet unknown. It’s a lacking a little of 2017’s menace (no murdered gingerbread men), despite Danny Elfman’s return. But it’s notable that the main victim is Kevin’s missus. Things really can’t have worked out as she hoped, but wow, their relationship moved fast.

Sweepstake for next year anyone? In the post-apocalyptic wasteland, Aldi will still be pushing these out. Carrots will walk the earth.

Apple – Share your Gifts (TBWA\Media Arts Lab)

> Advantage Apple

Now Apple’s an odd one. Previous years have seen an utterly bizarre cod-Frankenstein nod, and a Sam Smith prod to Airpods. They cost a wad. In 2018, it’s a refreshing surprise to see this delightful animation creep out, with more than an air of last Christmas’ BBC success.

It’s not all about the most effective way to shape dog’s nostrils in pastry either. It really is quite a beautiful paean to the absolute pain of creativity. And it’s wonderfully un-digital, while keeping the product in most frames. On top of that, it’s a brilliantly soft and measured response to the past year – in fact, no brand beat it.  A major, major win: It’s like Apple are part of a larger world, or want to be. Welcome to the Christmas legends club, world’s occasionally second largest company.

John Lewis and Partners – #EltonJohnLewis (adam&eveDDB)

> It’s a little bit fuzzy

Cuddly Elton Johns anyone? This was power pitching to the nth, even if the secret was fizzing like a Rocket Man’s timeless flight in the months before. This is quite extraordinary, and difficult to measure objectively due to its general John Lewisishness. It’s no surprise this got some backs up, especially as its launch coincided with the sale of tickets for the UK leg of his gigantic farewell tour. But astonishingly, this was the result of JL&P really pushing its long-standing, and well tested creatives. The result won’t go down as a classic as it’s too rooted in celebrity (the ‘everyman’ intention could never carry through that well). But, it’s beautifully produced as expected. It could make a fine coda to their blockbuster domination, raising a tear, even if no one can quite believe they hoped we wouldn’t mind, but I can’t see John Lewis giving up any of their ground like some competitors.

It’s a remarkable testament to JL&P’s position, and their fine relationship with their creatives, that this neither drove them towards the dead-end M&S faced last year, nor left them resoundingly on the wrong side of 2018.

And as for Elton – I bought tickets!

Waitrose – Fast Forward (adam&eveDDB)

> Boosting the meta-bolism

Under the same umbrella as John Lewis, you might have wondered if Autumn’s Partners rebrand would leave the food arm adrift in the ad stakes. It not only didn’t, but Waitrose broke all expectations by launching multiple ads and making room for some sharp skewering. What a confident cooperative they are. We had to pick one and it was the needling meta-one, naturally… Needless to say, Waitrose poking fun at John Lewis’ ad went down better than the original.

And that’s saying something after their last few peculiar years (stomped robins, pub sieges). Where can meta-Waitrose head next?

Ps. We all love that penguin ad.

Heathrow – Making It Home Makes it Christmas

> Wait for it. They earned a top spot last year.

I’ll close the list out with these furry faves, returning for their third year. No, the franchise hasn’t headed to space yet, but by moving beyond the original wonderfully framed twist, the Heathrow bears have become the SAW franchise of this wrap. Yes, it’s all sketch-based ‘aw’ antics by now, with barely a shred of furry jokes to be had as human avatars retreat to irrelevance. That tagline though: killer. Props for using Paul Young and particular props for not being Gatwick this Christmas-tide.

Take that John Lewis.

Round-Up of the Rest

Yes, there’s more. And I’m ecstatic to say, this is where the horror creeps in.

Cadbury – Secret Santa (VCCP)

> Wes Craven’s New Chocolate

First the slasher, all deaths off camera. Holy, masked, underbed, Santaface-killah Cadbury! what were you thinking?

Burberry – Close your Eyes and think of Christmas (Burberry In-house)

> Not one element wants to be in this advert

The psychological thriller with a weak challenge to close your eyes. No Christmas Day Doctor Who this year but, Matt Smith is on hand to help to prop up one of the most misjudged Christmas ads of all time. Carol of the Bells backs this horrific journey through the scenes Pinter rejected (unsurprisingly: no humour). Have a misery, thought Burberry, as they pulled in the stars from Kristin Scott Thomas to M.I.A. A glimpse into the brands inner-psyche, perhaps?

TK MAXX – The Neverending Stocking (Wieden & Kennedy)

> Love their Craft

Then, the creature feature. This is a doozie. I yearn for Christmas horror in the ad world. So much so, I run away from the doomsaying tension of early Coca-Cola Christmas trails because it  can never live up to the promise. This year, I needn’t have worried, as TK Maxx have served up a horror classic. I mean, what were they thinking. How did this get past the censors of all things festive! It’s utterly repulsively brilliant!

H+ M – Hotel Mauritz (adam&eveDDB)

>Easy check in

Then there’s The Shining. Well, no evidence of telepathic powers here, but top marks to H&M for filling out their seasonal and with Aubrey Plaza and Neneh Cherry.

And with that, I’ll check out – what a fascinating year that bodes well for more diversity and uncompromising risk-taking in 2019  Have a bloody great New Year – see you next festive-tide!