Opinion: The heaven and hell of Christmas advertising

Only 43 shopping days to Christmas, so what better time and place to buy than now

Nov 21, 2011 10:04:00 PM | Article | Dominic Mills


Returning from Italy last weekend by air, the BA cabin crew opened their attempt to sell us in-cabin duty free and gift products with the striking line: “It’s only 43 shopping days to Christmas, so what better time and place is there to buy than here and now.” 
With six weeks or so to go, TV airtime is filling up rapidly with blockbuster ads, many with huge production budgets and media spends to match. When you understand that for some advertisers, especially retailers, their success depends to a great extent on the Christmas season, it’s no surprise.
Those that stake everything on the Christmas blitz, however, should remember the sad story of Woolworths, a national retail chain with a long tradition of Christmas spectaculars featuring up to 20 celebrities a time. It collapsed just before Christmas a few years ago.  
Nevertheless, if the primary object of the exercise is to sell stuff, you’ve got to start by getting noticed or talked about. 
Two that are getting that talkability factor are for a pair of the UK’s leading retailers, John Lewis and Marks and Spencer (M&S). 
Unfortunately for M&S, its ad is being talked about for the wrong reason. Eschewing its usual line-up of celebrities, its ad featured the wannabe stars of the X Factor TV show, a musical talent contest currently grabbing huge audiences on Saturday and Sunday nights. 
On the surface, harnessing the hottest TV property of the moment looked like a smart idea; plus it’s a lot cheaper than using celebs. 
But the big plan came unstuck when one contestant to feature in the ad, a bumptious teenager called Frankie Cocozza, was expelled from the show following allegations of drug-taking. Oops! Cue some hasty editing although the unlucky fellow is still visible in a group shot. 
John Lewis, meanwhile, can pat itself on the back for getting the nation talking – thanks to an incredible 623,000 YouTube views before its ‘The Long Wait’ TVC even broke on TV. 
It’s a sweet commercial, featuring a young boy eagerly awaiting his treasure trove of gifts. But on Christmas Day, instead of ripping open his own presents, he gets up early and sneaks into his parents bedroom to give them theirs. 
In truth, it’s pretty vacuous stuff – no dialogue, just a series of images and a gorgeous soundtrack – but beautifully acted and directed. In this it follows a well-trodden path for John Lewis, whose ads always use the same ingredients: kids with the ‘ah’ factor, sentimental family shots and a cover-version of a well-known song. 
In this case the choice of music is giving the conversation an extra impetus on Twitter, Facebook and even the mainstream media – The Times, for example, gave the story a whole page: it’s Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, originally by The Smiths, an 80s band known for their uncompromising refusal to sell-out and tough ideological stance against issues like consumerism and meat-eating. 
But hey, it’s Christmas, and even The Smiths won’t look a gift horse in the eye. 
Media owners might wish they had some gifts coming their way. This week ITV, the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster and generally regarded as a barometer for the sector, warned its Q4 revenue would likely be down 2%. 
Just to cast a further pall of gloom over the next few weeks, respected forecaster Warc said the Eurozone crisis was causing it to revise downwards its UK adspend prediction for 2011. 
Ah well, there’s always 2012.