U.K. agencies struggle to find the right tone for Christmas
As the leaves start to change color in the U.K., ad agencies are usually ramping up to the start of the Christmas advertising season. It's the British equivalent of the Super Bowl, with advertisers pulling out all the stops on big-budget ads that typically pull on the heartstrings.
But this year is a little different. The global pandemic continues. What’s more, new lockdown measures announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the past few weeks have thrown many into gloom; curbs on gatherings of more than six people, and speculation that college students won’t be allowed home for the holidays, have inspired tabloid headlines such as “Christmas is cancelled.”
For agencies, it’s a quandary: What tone do you take when Christmas will look very different this year? On a recent financials call, executives at John Lewis, whose Christmas spot is the most anticipated of them all, said its campaign will be “COVID-appropriate.” But what might that mean exactly? Santa in a mask? Elves on Zoom?
“When you are thinking about what will Christmas be like this year, you are having to play a cunning guessing game as to the mood of the nation and what the rules will be,” says Yan Elliot, joint executive creative director at The&Partnership, which works with retailer Argos on its Christmas campaign. “We might be all isolating again at Christmas, so showing lots of people together might be insensitive. Another thing you have to be considerate about is not presenting a side of Christmas where you spend a lot of money, particularly this year when people have been under such pressure.”
Andrew Levene, managing director of production company Stink Films, says he’s been hearing that agencies have struggled with their Christmas spots. “It’s difficult to get the right tone and pitch at the right level,” he says. He adds that the briefs he’s seen so far do not reference the pandemic particularly—or if they do, it’s only in passing. “From what I’ve seen, escapism is winning more than reality. It’s so depressing watching the news, and people don’t want to watch more of that. But then do you look like you’re ignoring the real world?”
According to another production company executive, who did not wish to be named, scripts for Christmas ads this year have been subject to “multiple rewrites” and some high-profile directors have shied away from them. “Their biggest fear is about mitigating the risk of causing offense,” they say. “This time last year, the idea of turning down a big Christmas ad would have been crazy.”
Flexibility is key
So what can we expect to see? Publicis Worldwide Global Chief Creative Officer Bruno Bertelli says his agency is working on a Christmas campaign for Heineken which involves families getting together after a long time apart, an idea he says is “really connected to reality.”
On shoots, Bertelli says he now insists that the production team shoots different variations of scenarios, for example, with and without masks. “Being irrelevant is the biggest risk,” he adds. “You have to be open to changes.”
Productions also need to be mindful of ever-changing rules and travel restrictions (a recent Stink shoot, for example, was almost thrown into chaos by the sudden U.K. imposition of quarantine rules on Slovenia. However, the company decided to go ahead). With the recent tightening of restrictions, shoots will be even more tricky, says The&Partnership's Elliot: “If you haven't shot your campaign yet, you might be struggling to get it off the ground. It's getting tougher and tougher.”
Despite the pandemic, Christmas budgets do not appear to have been cut particularly, say those involved. Coke, for instance, is planning a big-budget spot with Hungry Man director Taika Waititi (“JoJo Rabbit.”) The campaign, by Wieden+Kennedy, will reportedly tell the story of a girl wanting to spend time with her father who has to work during the festive season.
Celebrities for hire
Another likelihood—which could be a predictor for the Super Bowl—is generous use of celebrities, who are available and looking for work. “A lot of people who wouldn’t ever talk to brands are talking to brands this year,” says Hermeti Balarin, the Mother London executive creative director who worked on last year's “rapping ornaments” spot for Ikea. He also predicts that the star-fest will continue through the Big Game.
Balarin believes advertisers would do well to entertain this year, rather than reminding people about the virus. “People are quite raw emotionally and by Christmas you’ll be triple that, so there will be a need for magic and escapism.” However, he warns that failing to reference the “new normal” at all can also be dangerous. “You don’t want to come across as insensitive.”
While uncertainty reigns in the U.K., in the U.S. most big retailers are more focused right now on scrambling to adjust promotions for a season that experts expect to start earlier than ever. Amazon recently said its annual Prime Day shopping event will be Oct. 13 and 14, dates that will usher in the holiday gifting period for deal-hungry consumers. Macy's recently said its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, during which the struggling department store chain has run its own holiday spots, will be a TV event this year and not the usual live parade in NYC. And, along with other retailers such as Target and Walmart, Macy's will be closed for brick-and-mortar business on Thanksgiving as the marketers seek to limit crowds during the pandemic.
Happier new year?
Only one thing is for sure: the holiday season will look very different this year. But perhaps some advertisers could take a different approach and focus more on the new year. Popeye's, for instance, already debuted a campaign in August that looks forward to the Times Square ball drop with the recognition that 2020 has been a terrible year.
Mother London Co-Executive Creative Director Ana Balarin predicts more advertisers could look to messages of hope and renewal: “We are seeing a lot of briefs coming in for the new year with themes of hope for 2021.” But as well as looking forward, she says, advertisers might also look back: “We could also see a lot of nostalgia—it’s a good way to circumnavigate the awful things that are happening now.”
Contributing: Adrianne Pasquarelli