The spectacle of Christmas adverts and the surprise successes of 2018

Since the phenomenon of the Coca-Cola truck, advertisers around the world have been trying to emulate that success and now, some are getting very close. Account executive Katie Nelson discusses this year's festive favourites.

The growing significance of Christmas adverts

It’s frequently said that ‘the Coke advert has been on, it’s officially Christmas!’ – but the equivalent in recent years has been the release of the John Lewis advert, with the song from each year’s advert entering the charts and often bringing tears to the eyes of the nation.

With some retailers, it’s no surprise that millions of pounds – and I’m sure lots of blood, sweat and tears – are being piled into integrated campaigns with the sole objective to create a buzz and build anticipation for an advert.

Very often these adverts are more of a short film, but with many retailers relying on Christmas to keep overall yearly profits on the up, it really isn’t a surprise – John Lewis makes large portion of its yearly revenue in the festive season.

Retailers can even use their adverts to add to profits – remember John Lewis’ cuddly Monty the Penguin in 2014?

Despite a steep £95 price tag, it still sold out in mere hours.

The rise of the Christmas advert culture

Adverts were shown for the first time on British television in 1955.

While there were more adverts for toys around Christmas, nothing really kicked off in the early decades of TV advertising.

Coca-Cola’s ‘holidays are coming’ advert launched for the first time in 1995, being shown each year and firmly placing itself as ‘the beginning of Christmas’.

The elements of the John Lewis Christmas tradition began to fall into place in the late 00s.

The 2008 ad featured the first cover-version soundtrack with shop staff singing The Beatles’ From Me To You.

However, 2011 was the year that the anticipation for the John Lewis ad reared its head for the first time.

The ad featured an impatient child waiting for Christmas to come, with Slow Moving Millie’s cover of The Smiths’ Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.

The narrative saw a heart-warming plot twist – the naughty child wasn’t impatient to receive presents, but to give them to his parents.

And so, the tear-jerker John Lewis ad tradition was born.

Since then, snowmen, Monty the Penguin, Moz the Monster and a lonely man on the moon have pulled at the heart strings of the nation.

But with this year’s John Lewis advert featuring Elton John – The Boy and the Piano – splitting the nation more than ever before, it’s left the door open for others to take the Christmas crown.

The big names

Discount supermarket chain Aldi has been growing rapidly, with a huge Christmas advert campaign being a top priority for the marketing team to help the company compete with ‘The Big Four’.

Last year, it stepped up to the plate with Kevin the Carrot, and a resounding success sees Kevin and his family return for a third consecutive year – complete with a range of toys to help Aldi’s profits.

Sainsbury’s’ The Big Night enlisted the help of The Greatest Showman director Michael Gracey and has been voted the best ad of the year.

Showing the emotional rollercoaster that is the school nativity, a young girl starts singing quietly as her family members look on nervously.

As the scene explodes with colours and activity and other children dressed as various bits of Christmas paraphernalia, her voice and confidence shines through.

The advert plays on the emotion of any parent and the excitement of buzzing activity Christmas brings.

And if social media is anything to go by, Sainsbury’s has given us the star of Christmas 2018 – #PlugBoy.

Tesco opted to take the age-old debate around what food should be in a Christmas dinner and run with it.

Featuring various shots of family and friend groups declaring their love or hate of sprouts and Yorkshire puddings, no doubt this advert prompted the same discussion to take place in living rooms all around the UK.

Whether you’re a fan or a scrooge when it comes to Christmas ads, this year we’ve been treated to a plethora of brilliant ones.

But surprisingly, this year the top dogs aren’t those names that are usually on the tip of everyone’s Christmas tongue.

M&S has seen itself in the midst of the fancy little knickers scandal, whereas Poundland is back making headlines with its risqué elf activity for a second year in a row, dividing opinions once again.

The surprise stars

Iceland has arguably the most talked about advert this year with its offering actually being banned for television airing for being too political to adhere with UK Code of Broadcast Advertising guidelines.

No, it hasn’t taken the route of selling its frozen wares.

Following on from its promise to remove both plastic packaging and palm oil from its own label products, Iceland has continued to highlight the grim realities of palm oil production with a heart wrenching cartoon voiced by Emma Thompson.

Originally released by Greenpeace, the short film depicts young orangutan Rang-Tan, who is heartbroken seeing her home being destroyed by humans through deforestation.

Whether you believe it was a conscious decision to get the ad banned or not, this partnership with Greenpeace has been one of the most talked about adverts – for all the right reasons.

Twitter championed its own pseudo-celebrity – John Lewis.

His Twitter handle is @johnlewis and he receives more than 50,000 tweets every year meant for the retailer.

John, based in Virginia, USA, spends time replying to all the tweets inadvertently sent to him and directs the users to the correct handle, usually in a comical fashion.

So with all the usual hype around the release of the John Lewis advert, Twitter made its own – with the real John Lewis at its heart.

It’s a wonderful and personal touch to the real human man, and even adds in a tongue-in-cheek hint of realism with how John deciphers English words that aren’t frequently used by Americans.

And it’s not a social campaign without a hashtag – #NotARetailStore pays homage to the real John Lewis’s Twitter bio.

The last advert to see a viral response in 2018 [at the time of writing] is #LoveIsAGift, which racked up more than five million views after Phil Beastall from Gloucestershire uploaded his short film to Facebook.

It follows a man as he ticks off the days counting down to Christmas, until the big day when he sits listening to a cassette on an old Walkman.

It becomes clear that the tape is a message from his late mother, and that she left him a number of tapes to listen to each Christmas – this being the last one.

This advert proves it’s not just the size of the budget, it’s the narrative that is arguably more important.

Love is a Gift was made on a budget of just £50 and a whole host of emotion.

As many people prepare to get through the festive season without the loved ones they have lost, this advert – hailed as ‘the ad of the year’ – reminds us that love is a gift that lasts forever.

Speaking about the advert, Phil said that he hopes it reminds people to appreciate how lucky we are and to spend more time with the people they love.

And after all, isn’t that what the season is all about?


By Katie Nelson

Katie has both B2B and B2C experience across a range of sectors, including fashion and beauty, alternative finance and third sector. She now supports clients across the food and drink, architecture, design, and property and construction industries.