“Reliving the adverts, so you can’t forget them” – my annual round-up of UK advertising candy, 2019 edition.
“IT WAS THE 1ST OF NOVEMBER AND BARELY HAD THE CRYPT DOORS SEALED AFTER HALLOWEEN…”
It’s just as well media hawks were salivating at the prospect of this year’s ad line up as soon as Halloween was locked back in the vault. There’s a distinctly dark tinge to this year’s selection. The shift to animation that has increasingly charmed TV spots for the past few years is pretty much gone. Thinly veiled horror tropes have arrived. The creep of the 1980s continues. No wonder we’re all feeling pretty nostalgic. The continued Brexit uncertainty is a disruptive force. This year’s festive offerings suggest that advertisers have been caught out. Either their best intentions have inadvertently sabotaged, or they’ve been a bit too bullish. Buckle up and take your injections for an eclectic year.
As usual, this round-up is a non-exhaustive list that stretches from the aspirational to the ubiquitous to the entirely misjudged, with a few unexpected delights in-between.
Warning: Carrots return.
Barely had the bewitched dust of Halloween settled before Argos had thrown this onto the screen. They were keen, and viewers eagerly lapped it up. Sure, the Sainsbury’s-owned retailer has lost as much of its grandeur as a ubiquitous high street network over the past few years, and that jars a bit. Have they peaked too early, or just opened up a great idea a bit too late?
Argos, the book of Dreams, Agency: The&Partnership)
Sadly, The Book of Dreams isn’t a Sandman tie-in. It’s a campaign that puts a vital part of the band, almost forgotten through in-store and online tech upgrades, front and centre. WE WILL NEVER FORGET THE PENCILS, but will we forget the Argos catalogue? In this ad, Argos has chucked it on the desk and chosen a prime page.
There’s even a tie-in website dedicated to five decades of the tome, with front covers that can wring desperate nostalgia from even the Scroogiest (“do YOU remember 1993?”). They say sense of smell has the best recall, but they haven’t experienced the rush remembering the full weight of one of these laminated beasts smashing onto your knuckles. Or the joy of the whole book loudly springing shut when you’d just found the right product section. Love them really, I just remember best in agony.
The advert, here in its extended glory (thousands of pages!), does an excellent job of wrenching the catalogue back to centre stage. At the expense of Santa’s list, reality and planning permission. And it’s the dad who sucks up most of the focus, wrestling attention from the sound of 80s Jim Kerr. It gets bonus points for reversing the tired ‘parents watching their children perform’ Nativity schtick (it was a stage show that ruined Sainsbury’s campaign in 2018). Once the kitchen’s fully transformed into gig central, there’s a satisfying flare of competitive dad amid the father-daughter bonding. They throw a lot at summing up the Christmas experience, but astonishingly, the best is yet to come. Cubby the Curious Bear crowd surfs in to steal the show from Dad and Kerr. Though it’s all nicely done, it falls a little flat. Perhaps it’s missing the joke. The Book of Dreams label came from a Bill Bailey joke.
Orange alert. Another early release, with a familiar, menacing refrain…
Aldi, Amazing Show (agency: McCann UK)
Aldi never knowingly leave a carrot behind. Why would they when Kevin has his own Twitter account, and cuddly avatars are knocking £3k on eBay? Could the root vegetable’s most fearsome enemy change all that? Sadly not. Even if Russell Sprout has usurped the Wicked Parsnip. The concept of this bizarre Leafy Blinders skit show’s there’s still shopping aisles of pop culture to be mined. Aldi may have years of this stashed up. It’s the new Saw franchise.
Retreating from his fairytale kingdom, Kevin and family have gone a little meta as they pay tribute to cultural tentpoles. ‘Twas the carrot knocked the sprout out the way, and form one reading, well, mine, I’m pretty sure there’s an off-screen murder at the end.
If you’re down with Peaky vegetables, you might want to flick channels just after the opening scene and the Dickensian streets. Just over a minute later, you’ll have acidic orange tears streaming down your face and blood pouring from your ears. The saving grace from an advert that makes The Greatest Showman, every adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and Robbie Williams’ (here on Carrot-vocals) entire career look like masterclasses in understatement is that somehow, against all expectations, the jokes aren’t as bad as the previous two years.
It won’t knock… At all… The buildup was unmistakable.
John Lewis, Excitable Edgar, (agency; Adam & Eve/DDB)
After 2018’s departure (emotional, but drowned in glitzy co-promotion – I’m bitter, with a year still left on my Elton stadium tickets), eyes were on THE CHRISTMAS BRAND to return to the emotive staple that’s pushed them to the top of the Festive schedule for the past century (i.e.since 2004).
It’s painful to admit that they peaked in 2011 and 2014. Those heights are so lofty it’s doubtful any brand will ever scale them again, even standing on an Everest of disposable creatives.
With Excitable Edgar they haven’t so much soared as plummeted to the other place. Within a minute, a snowman is murdered. Shortly after a village-full of children barely escape drowning. The emotional ambition propels us through seven stages of grief only to find salvation, and a punchline, in a Christmas of servitude. What happens to Edgar when everyone’s hungover? For the rest of the year? I fear imprisonment. I also fear this is a calculated deconstruction of John Lewis’ previous hits, but even Man on the Moon had better internal logic.
Fictional creatures are never JL’s strong suit, and perhaps reaching back to a fantastical version of our isles at peak-Brexit wasn’t the wisest choice. The teaser of a door knocker, with its Marley menace and muppetry potential promised so much more. Although Bastille’s take on Can’t Fight this Feeling is strangely addictive, it was a bit of a flambeed disappointment.
Interlude: A momentary pause, for absent friends.
Raise a glass of chilled Sauvignon blanc to a company sadly missed from this year’s Sketch. The mighty star John Lewis and Partners has swallowed everything. Waitrose, with your pub lock-ins and Robins in peril, we’ll miss you. At least you went out on a high last year, mocking John Lewis.
The bears jumped their skin long ago, we all know that. It was a good pay-off in the first year, but as soon as it repeated, it was less a metaphor and more chronic lycanthropy. Following the great drone-less (disaster) of 2018) how could they follow that Sexy Bear? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. No. No, they couldn’t. Doris and Edward have retired. The channels are full of undercover footage of elves setting up their grotto at the airport. And on the Youtube channel, comments asking where the bears are.
Marks & Spencer
It wasn’t an auspicious start. And early Christmas Jumper promo that tainted M&S as a House of Pain.
Marks & Spencer, Festive Jumpers, (agency: ODD)
But that was only an entree (in fact, the brand has now split its products between two agencies). Sparks gave up competing with John Lewis long ago, and their main event is food-obsessed and a sinister throwback.
Marks & Spencer, This is not just Food…, (agency: Grey London)
It’s strikingly artificial. Paddy McGuinness and Emma Willis are likeable enough, but knowingly crashing on Talos IV before commenting on the peculiar Midwich market fayre feels like something we shouldn’t be watching.
It’s more unbelievable than Shirley Bassey carving out an Ice Palace with her golden stiletto. While navigating the market, our guides’ chemistry is almost too good. It inadvertently makes other parts look amateurish. Also, is it me..? Do they do a runner at the end?
This is a cornucopia of surreality that could knock eyes out. With stiff competition, the strangest part may be Paddy remarking that something must be good because it’s shut the kids up… While a children’s choir holds a particular bone-chilling note in their rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross. Somebody fix that record, they’re probably still there, skipping.
This is not food porn; this is Christmas torture.
After stealing last year’s Sketch Prize (c), Apple continued to build a formidable slate of campaigns. Note: being here didn’t intimidate them. It’s almost as if their advertising is inverse to the clarity of their products: this year’s Christmas promo shoots and scores.
(Apple, The Surprise, (agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab)
No, I’m not crying. I guess it helps if you understand siblings and haven’t seen Up, and can put, but oh does it slather on layer after layer of feels.
Who’s reindeer ready? Are you reindeer ready?
McDonald’s, release the Reindeer, (agency: Leo Burnett)
McDonald’s didn’t get the memo about dialling down the animation, so this is their moment to shine. They’ve been taking notes, picking up some of the most compelling parts from campaigns of recent years. It’s very affecting as a result, but it cynically drops into real-life when the product and brand makes an appearance. There’s a punchline reason for that, but still – can’t see Mary Poppins doing this.
Ikea, Silence the Critics, (agency: Mother)
Ikea is this year’s unexpected big brand delight. Eyebrows rose when MC D Double E was revealed for soundtrack duties, but it really works. It’s captivating, and it’s funny. At last: a prolonged assault on humans by their house. How long we’ve waited.
Almost a shame it shows the human’s listening and doesn’t go the whole hog: an inversed Home Alone or full pelt haunting. As it turns out, it couldn’t be much more Christmas. Grime’s been committed, and we love it.
We were waiting for a (super)hero.
Sainsbury’s, Nicholas the Sweep, agency: Wieden+Kennedy London)
Sainsbury’s haven’t bucked the challenge of Christmas advertising since they and Jamie Oliver parted ways, whether that freed them creatively or in any other way. This year they have outdone themselves. Bundling up superhero origins with a rewritten myth and a solemn nod to their 150th birthday. Has there ever been a more sinister Father Christmas in advertising? Claiming Sainsbury’s changed Christmas forever? It’s the kind of jaw-dropping hubris I can really get behind. Look at the state of this smirk:
While this Dickensian horrorscape is as logically flawed as M&S’s market, it’s also far more believable. Perhaps its true gift is to highlight how Christmas ads hold a mirror up to the viewer (bad luck readers). Do I see this an exploration of Anakin Skywalker-level destiny? Is it some kind of Marxist parable? Maximum points for ending it with such a knowing wink. Good luck beating it next year. At least there’s no plug boy. Oh, no, wait. It can’t be, he’s there in a Christmas egg…
That Star Wars talk has made me think. To jump in from a leftfield far, far away, here’s our advert of the year. It’s the one that steals the most heart, has the best pay-off and darn it, is better than both a cinema 4DX experience and the Sequel trilogy combined – superb work from Wunderman Thompson Philippines.
Globe telecom, A Star Wars Experience for All, (agency: Wunderman Thompson Philippines)
A Star Wars Experience for all.
If there’s a mega-retailer capable of courting controversy with the most anodyne of Christmas adverts, it’s Tesco. It was only a matter of time before they snapped. Here is them snapping.
Tesco, (agency: BBH London)
Of course, I kind of love it. A rollicking skit channelling Back to the Future, unnecessarily dragging in society and politics and somehow managing to remain defiantly irony-free. Until, presumably, Future Man runs over Paddy and Emma in a fake market and is cursed for eternity by a reformed (Saint) Nicholas. Bit awkward when its 100 years is squaring up to the Sainsbury’s 150 campaign, but this is a very strange year.
It’s not been an excellent year for the BBC, and that could be the strain showing in their Christmas advert.
BBC, XMas Life, (agency: BBC Creative)
They took risks for the past two years. Some may think it unnecessary; others will definitely take umbrage at them daring to do anything remotely commercial. But for the most part, it’s paid off.
Auntie hasn’t so much walked away from the family-led fables of the past couple of years as strapped them to a rocket. A lot is going on here. A brain aneurism wasn’t what we were expecting this Christmas. BBC Creative might want to stick the Doctor back on a sleigh next year.
For many, Iceland won last year’s battle and quite possibly enacted the greatest act of Christmas advertising by having their ad banned. How could they beat Rang-tan?
Iceland, 5 Gold Rings!, (agency: Leo Burnett)
Well, an all too conventional retreat to charades and punning or less charitably, elder dementia and dad jokes. Male stereotypes and abuse of the elderly has well and truly banished any thoughts of orangutangs. Is this a good time to point out that the original lyric is Five Oldring’s? (Not as appetising)
Oh but hang on, it’s a warm-up to one of the most audacious partnerships of the year.
Iceland / Disney, The Magic of Frozen.
It’s almost painful to include Morrisons this year. They’ve hacked the code to being sketch-proof. Keep it simple, keep it fondue, keep the emphasis on the music – especially if it’s a demo.
And then make it all about the community.
This really isn’t the stuff these sketches are made of at all.
Let’s end on a high. By which I mean, through the stratosphere to an interstellar high. It’s funny how Christmas has forgotten its vital message about stranded aliens. But don’t speed dial Chris de Burgh just yet.
Sky, Reconnect this Christmas, (agency: Sky Creative agency)
This is extraordinary – an actual sequel to ET? In the grip of 80s nostalgia, it’s not unexpected, But they’ve chucked the ecology of a planetoid at this. Following an unfortunately horrific intro when ET’s upper limb could easily be the mutant-branch arm of a snowman, things are ever so charming as we plod through the familiar. If you’re going to retread the ‘alien falls to Earth and doesn’t understand the internet’ trope you may as well go with this beloved, classic slice of celluloid.
It’s a little shocking that Elliott’s grown into a well-adjusted adult, but once you get over that, it’s all so sugary you forget that this is less a sequel than a remake of ET. With a bit more CGI. And this time the wee ecologist doesn’t nearly die in a ditch. It’s wholly right as the message is “Reconnect this Christmas”. And this isn’t the year to remake the wheel.
Above is an extended cut of Sky’s promo. By the time you reach the inevitable climax of a bike flight, your finger will be glowing in sympathy for Elliott’s wife. Her character arc is the dawning realisation of what she’s married into: ET, Sky broadband home.
Fades away… Have a bloody great New Year – see you next festive-tide!