Surprise Trumps Sentimentality in U.K. Christmas Campaigns

In Major Shift, Only John Lewis Serves up a Tear Jerker for 2015

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Argos 'Just Can't Wait'
Argos 'Just Can't Wait'

Christmas is family, food, fun, presents, and tradition, a formula that lends itself to sentimental advertising. In the last few years – encouraged by the spectacular success of the John Lewis campaigns – U.K. marketers have been chasing a share of heart by turning up the volume on tear-jerking moments in their festive ads.

John Lewis' new "Man on the Moon" spot is perhaps its soppiest yet, and had many Brits crying into their cornflakes when it went online at 8 a.m. today.

Last year, supermarket chain Sainsbury's gave department store John Lewis a run for its money with an emotional spot commemorating the World War I Christmas truce. But for 2015, marketers are going in search of something different.

Brits are being surprised in every commercial break by a variety of cutting edge creative. Retailer Argos' snow zorbers, Burberry's bouncing Billy Elliots, Curry's intrusive Jeff Goldblum, and Mulberry's risqué nativity parody – together they make up an entertaining festive package for consumers who actually look forward to blockbuster holiday ads on TV..



Currys PC World:


Jonathan Burley, ECD at CHI & Partners, who put zorbing into the Argos spot, said, "Ad agencies hate to be seen doing the same thing as everyone else. Last year, people had seen the power of the John Lewis ads, and it was a race to make the most moving Christmas fodder. When things cluster together it's never by design. No one wants that. This year there is a drive to variety."

The latest crop of ads appears to be focused more on bringing out the personality of the brand, and less on creating a generic, feel-good Christmas mood.

Marks & Spencer, whose festive offering last year was all about magic and sparkle and fairies, has gone for a party vibe this year, using "Uptown Funk" as a soundtrack to an ad that's all about entertainment, hospitality and surprise.

Electrical retailer Curry's & PC World blandly referenced Hollywood's Golden Age last year, but this year the campaign, again by AMV BBDO, is much more individual, with actor Jeff Goldblum popping up to advise people on how to deal with Christmas disappointments.

AMV BBDO's Sainsbury's Christmas campaign does not break until next week, but its head of planning Craig Mawdsley promises it will be very different to last year's World War I spot. He said, "We'd rather surprise and delight people than wrap them in a comfortable warm duvet. It creates more engagement."

Russell Ramsey, executive creative director at JWT, said he thinks that the WWI centenary affected the tone of many U.K. Christmas ads last year, but says that has been "shaken off" for 2015.

Mr. Ramsey said, "This year, brands are displaying their personalities – entertaining audiences and not overtly selling. They want you to think they are good guys and to feel good about the brand."

Of course, the move away from sentimentality could be seen as an acknowledgement that John Lewis now owns that space. From "The Long Wait" in 2011 to "Man in the Moon" in 2015, via "The Bear and the Hare" and "Monty's Christmas," each year the retailer – and its agency, Adam & Eve/DDB – have tugged successfully on the heart strings and wallets (John Lewis' sales were up 4.8% last December) of middle class Britain.

"Other brands have played with that formula," Mr. Mawdsley said, "but you can't beat the masters at their own game. John Lewis has a certain aesthetic and emotion, and it's the way brands work, by being consistent. There is comfort in the familiar, like turkey on Christmas Day."

Christmas is like the Super Bowl for U.K. advertisers. It's a time when audiences are actively looking out for commercials, and John Lewis is the star attraction. With ad blocking so high up the agenda, it provides some reassurance for marketers that audiences are still happy to engage with ads – at least once a year.

Mr. Mawdsley warns, however, "It's becoming increasingly unusual. We should not be lulled into a false sense of security and it's not a sign of the broader health of the ad industry."

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