Proper Gander – Capturing The Christmas Spirit

Christmas began to edge into the shops around August, with the occasionally spotted box of mince pies on the shelves or roll of reindeer-themed wrapping paper by the checkouts. Once Halloween was out of the way, there was nothing to stop retailers going full-throttle with the pre-Crimbo drive for sales, starting with their festive advertising campaigns. Most of the big players launched theirs at the start of November, with online store Very getting in early a full 85 days before 25th December.

There’s something of an arms race around Christmas adverts, with each one aiming to be more glitzy or cosy or cute than the others. The most ambitious retailers use their adverts to make themselves seem like an integral part of the season. John Lewis, for example, pitches its campaign as something we’re supposed to eagerly look forward to in itself, which pundits are happy to buy into. ITV’s Good Morning Britain thought a sneak preview of it was worth interrupting a debate about Tory sleaze mid-flow, sparking a flurry of complaints. Advertising campaigns have aimed to make an impact on how we think of Christmas for a long time. The best example is Coca Cola’s 1931 campaign across billboards and in magazines, which fixed Father Christmas’s coat as being coloured red, whereas before he had a now-forgotten more varied wardrobe.

Many festive adverts don’t directly boast about the virtues of whatever’s on sale, but instead are little syrupy stories or showy song-and-dance numbers, such as Aldi’s condensed version of A Christmas Carol with animated fruit and veg and Asda’s tightly choreographed ice skating routine. Christmas adverts are meant to invoke a warm yuletide glow, which is then supposed to fire us up to head to whichever shop to buy our gifts and grub. The reasoning behind this strategy is that we don’t buy products for the product itself, but instead because of how the product makes us feel. This approach dates back at least to the work of propagandist Edward Bernays, who in late 1920s America used it to devise an advertising campaign for a brand of ‘feminist’ cigarettes. Women were encouraged to break the taboo of smoking in public, making an association between ciggies and feelings of independence and empowerment. And ever since, advertisers have been manipulating emotions and aspirations to sell products, and when else would it be more effective to do this than in the run-up to Christmas?

Bernays was a pioneer of the ‘woke’ advert, as he exploited first-wave feminism to flog commodities, in much the same way as Pepsi’s recent campaign insultingly used imagery from the Black Lives Matter protests. This kind of ‘woke’ advert latches and leeches onto a political issue, cynically using it to attract a target demographic of young socially aware consumers. Advertisers have seen what trends are stirring people up and want to channel some of their energy into purchases. Christmas isn’t really the time for getting on a soapbox, though, and so festive adverts are likely to avoid getting too political. Similarly, concerns about CO2 emissions and wasting resources tend to be put on hold during December’s spending spree, and none of this year’s crop of ads risked accusations of hypocrisy with an eco-friendly angle. Many were understandably built around the message of looking ahead to better days, with Tesco’s one making light of stock shortages and confirming that Father Christmas has been fully vaccinated against Covid. Amazon tried a more serious approach to real life with its mini-movie about a teenager whose mental health issues are eased when she receives a parcel in the post. Presumably, Amazon chose to present itself as a conduit for wellbeing to push away recent complaints about its hostile stance towards unionisation, its practice of destroying unsold goods and breaches of data processing laws.

The other, more commonly identified kind of ‘woke’ advert is one which attracts criticism from bitter right-wing trolls on social media because it doesn’t only depict white heterosexual people without disabilities. The trolls miss the point, though, which is that when advertisers emphasise diversity they are doing it to present their product in whatever way will make it most popular, and therefore profitable. These adverts are saying ‘Yay! People are different … but similar enough to buy THIS!’ What sales they lose from disgruntled whingers won’t matter compared to those they’ll gain from people taken in by businesses keen to appear progressive. Of this year’s Christmas adverts, John Lewis’s met with most online whining because it featured a black family.

Quality time with family and friends is a common theme, being the focus of adverts for Debenhams, Boots and House of Fraser, among others. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the festive season and its opportunity to spend time with loved ones, especially after the year we’ve just had. What taints that Christmassy feeling is when it gets twisted round and used to manipulate us, to channel money from our bank accounts to those of the elite. How this is done changes with the times, not only in what attitudes and outlooks are exploited in adverts, but also through the ever-evolving technology which the mass media relies on. TV is now less important to advertisers than social media, which comes with the lucrative advantage of beaming targeted ads straight into the laptops and smartphones we use to do our Christmas shopping.


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