Every year, the Christmas season sneaks quietly in throughout October and November. As soon as Halloween is over, advent calendars and tins of chocolate appear in Tesco, and it’s not long before Christmas adverts start showing up on TV. Christmas sales and specials begin long before most towns have put their decorations up, getting people in the spirit of spending. So really, the holiday season starts when companies decide to start selling us Christmas.
It might seem that something like Christmas cannot be advertised – the values of Christmas are hardly compatible with the values of advertising. However, Christmas advertisements are almost entirely different from the typical year-round ones. Ed Kitchingman named the release of the annual John Lewis Christmas advert a ‘national event’, and it seems he is right, as thousands took to Twitter after the release of this year’s production The Bear and the Hare.
Since 2007, John Lewis has been producing Christmas adverts that are increasingly more like short films than product advertisements. Other retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Tesco are producing adverts with a similar message. The holiday season seems, for a time, to make people value family significantly more than material things, so advertising reflects this.
The Bear and the Hare is deliberately sentimental and appeals to emotions of the audience, rather than appealing directly to their wallets. The Hare’s Christmas present to the Bear is an alarm clock. The present itself is not important; what is important is that it allowed the Bear to spend the holiday with the other animals. This message seems to have taken over Christmas advertising in the past few years. One example of this change is the fact that Christmas advertising has become about storytelling. The main message of an ordinary advertisement is simply ‘you need this product because (insert apparently desirable trait here)’.
Christmas advertising conceals this message, and instead presents stories about family and love. Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and Boots all produced adverts last year about how their products could make your family’s lives easier, playing on the worn-out mother stereotype for sympathy.
John Lewis excludes products entirely, and so expects the audience to infer that they care the most. If you believe the advertisement, this means the shoppers that truly care about their loved ones should do their Christmas shopping at John Lewis. Following the release of The Bear and the Hare, John Lewis introduced a range of The Bear and the Hare gifts just in time for the holidays. Clearly this new type of advertising is still bringing in cash, as telling emotive stories at Christmas time will always sell.
It would be easy to become disillusioned with Christmas, thinking about all the ways shoppers are manipulated by ‘caring’ retailers, but the underlying message of Christmas advertising has to be the same as for all adverts. No matter how cynical the concept of advertising might be, these adverts can be appreciated for what they are – short stories about the value of generosity and family. Because of this, adverts have become part of British holiday tradition. Some people anticipate the John Lewis advert like it’s a new episode of Doctor Who. In the end, Christmas adverts, like Christmas itself, are both materialistic and meaningful, and that’s the way it should be.