Who’s nailed the socially distant Santa?
If Superbowl advertising is, well, the Superbowl of Advertising, it may be fair to describe Christmas advertising as the World Series. It is, after all, an event that keeps bells (and registers) jingling the world over. But in the COVID19 climate is the Big Christmas Ad still appropriate? Or is it a much-needed panacea for these #unprecedentedtimes?
The Origin Story
Christmas ads have been a part of pop culture since Coca Cola gave Santa Claus a makeover back in 1930, and while there were some notable one-offs over the next 70-odd years, it wasn’t until 2007 when UK retailer John Lewis turned a random pile of gifts into an even more random shadow on a wall, that the Christmas advertising battle started to heat up. Fast forward a few years, and we’ve had everything from a Christmas “film” for H&M directed by Wes Anderson, to a 4 minute sequel to ET for American Telco Xfinity, even a retelling of Christmas Day 1914 for Sainsbury’s (and the Royal British Legion). It all adds up to the sort of anticipation usually reserved for the presents under the tree.
Socially Distant Santa?
Which brings us to today: Christmas 2020. In a year like no other, it’s safe to assume an array of ads like never before. After all, do you go large, when you may have been laying off staff left, right and centre? Do you reflect our current reality? Or do you just spread a little joy?
So, how to choose? With so many ads being featured in so many articles on the “best and worst Christmas ads for 2020,” I’ve borrowed from my earlier World Series analogy – choosing a spot each from Australia, New Zealand*, the US and the UK – to take a look at. And may the best schmaltz win!
Having judged many of Aldi’s past Christmas campaign in a few effectiveness awards, I’ve had the opportunity to scrutinise these campaigns quite closely. And in all honesty, I’ve often found the product playing second fiddle to the jolly fat man. This has led me to call into question just how much the campaign is driving the results, versus the fact that Aldi have simply established a distinct offering around this time of year that clearly resonates.
But this year I think they may have nailed it. Their Synchronised Santa spot has a quirk that perfectly reflects the brand’s Good Different positioning. And in stepping back from the epic nature of some of their previous campaigns, I think they’ve simply done a better job of heroing their product. There’s no huge narrative, no creative indulgences, just good different.
OK, so technically not an ad from New Zealand, rather one directed by a New Zealander – JoJo Rabbit’s, Taika Waititi.
In this spot, social distancing has been taken to the extreme with an ad featuring a dad who works on an oil rig, tasked by his daughter on their tearful farewell to deliver her letter to Santa. There follows a Walter Mitty-style slog from the North Sea to the North Pole, before the punchline you could see coming from a mile away is delivered (spoiler!).
I struggle with this one a little. While it’s just been ranked the second most effective Christmas spot for 2020 (ironically enough behind a remake of another Coke spot), I think this one missed a trick. Sure it’s a tearjerker, but if I was going to hire a director with a personality like Waititi, I’d want to see a bit of that humour come through. Plus the product felt tacked on. It all just left me feeling a little meh.
From the team that brought you the aforementioned sequel to ET (yes, featuring Henry Thomas all grown up), comes the most appropriate piece of holiday casting ever: Steve Carell as Santa Claus! (Pssst … they have the same initials.)
This spot was probably one of most self-conscious in how it reflected the events of the past year. Zoom calls between a socially distant elf workforce; the inevitable “you’re on mute, Santa” joke; even a raunchy towel-clad appearance by Mrs Claus; all set to a catchy Supertramp soundtrack, combine for an entertaining few minutes. BUT, when your message is about the importance of togetherness, and the product you’re ultimately selling reflects that, it’s probably a good idea not to raise your prices and cap your data at the same time. You can be sure marketing and product weren’t talking, so any goodwill the spot may have created definitely won’t be reflected in the next round of customer satisfaction scores.
Honourable mention for the US should go to this series from Virgin Hotels featuring a cocktail-quaffing Saint Nick putting people on his nice list, despite a raft of covid/lockdown-related misdemeanors. Spot on casting and tone, but a strategy identical to …
The Naughty List is Cancelled, Tesco
With this year’s John Lewis spot only making sense if you’ve been in the UK during lockdown (it features animated recreations of moments of kindness that have taken place over the last few months), I thought I’d take a look at another leading player in the High Street Festive Stakes, Tesco. Set to Britney’s “Oops, I did it again …” the ad taps into some of the more universal behaviour of lockdown, which makes it a tad more accessible than the John Lewis equivalent. But it also doesn’t shy away from being a bit retail when it needs to, and I reckon it will have given the Tesco team a great creative platform to sell from. Which ultimately, is what advertising is pretty much all about.
Some Pure Christmas Joy
So what spot was my favourite? Well, I have to admit that none of the above get my final gong. Instead, my vote is split between two rather unlikely luxury brand entrants, simply because they both just made something adventurous, beautiful and full of joy in their own way.
The Burberry, Singing in the Rain reimagining is Christmas without the clichés. It’s dynamic, impactful (literally), and compelling. While Gucci Gift 2020 goes 90s retro to the soundtrack of an 80s classic. It’s weird and awkward, yet beautiful and relatable at the same time – at least for anyone who’s been to an office Christmas Party. Which is pretty much all of us, right?
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