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  • Have brands given up on presenting a picture-perfect Christmas?
  • Have brands given up on presenting a picture-perfect Christmas?
    John Lewis (2016) ©

Why brands are ‘keeping it real’ in their Christmas ads

After a year marked by divisive rhetoric and seemingly incessant bad news, it’s unsurprising that 2016’s Xmas ads move away from the idea of magical jollity. Canvas8 spoke to Rob Thomas, founder of Practical Semiotics, to understand why the idyllic holiday montage is a thing of the past.

Location United Kingdom

“There’s this idea of 2016 being this annus horribilis. That it’s been the worst year with Bowie dying, Prince dying, the ascent of Trump, and, of course, Brexit,” says Rob Thomas, founder of Practical Semiotics, who adds that it’s been a challenging year whatever our beliefs. “This year’s ads reflect what’s really happening in the nation, how people feel. It’s been a tough year for many, so the image they are trying to paint is moving away from the suburban, perfect magical Christmas, away from this choreographed and staged setup.”

“I want to find the greatest gift that I can give my family, but right now I don’t have time to breathe,” sings James Corden in Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, which tells the story of Dave, a hard-working dad who struggles to find time for his family. These aren’t quite the joyful and heart-warming lyrics one would expect around the festive period, but Dave’s struggles are no exception in this year’s commercials. Brands are waving goodbye to perfectly roasted turkeys, sparkly tinsel, gifts and candles. Instead, they’re ‘keeping it real’. As times are getting tougher, with trust being a major concern among the populace, brands are responding with comic – and occasionally satirical – realism.

Canvas8 spoke to semiotician Rob Thomas to decode 2016’s Christmas spots and understand why brands have used their holiday ads to reflect the uncertainty and pressures faced by Brits rather than masking them.


Daily disempowerment
For Thomas, disempowerment plays a disproportionately large role in this year’s big spotlight ads. In the historical model of the Christmas advert, some problem or imperfection is commonly introduced and then promptly resolved by the brand. This year, however, numerous commercials have waived the classic happy ending.

In John Lewis' spot, for instance, the ‘crisis’ isn’t resolved as one might expect. The ad has two protagonists, a little girl called Bridget and Buster the boxer dog. When Bridget’s parents buy her a trampoline for Christmas, they soon discover that Buster has a passion for jumping too. By the end of the ad, it’s Buster who has claimed ownership over the trampoline. “It’s an inversion of the traditional Christmas scene,” says Thomas. “Rather than seeing everybody together, sharing the same moment and being actively engaged in positive feelings, the ad is seeing ‘the Christmas family’ in a static sense of shock.”

It’s been a tough year for many, so the image brands are trying to paint is moving away from the suburban, perfect magical Christmas, away from this choreographed and staged setup

The Sainsbury's ad feels like a milder version of the same theme. It does have a happy ending, but “in the world of Sainsbury’s, the only way to overcome disempowerment is in the realm of fantasy,” says Thomas. The stop-motion animation tells the story of Dave – an ordinary, caring husband and dad who just wants time with his family, but whose long working hours get in the way. “Sainsbury’s take on disempowerment is quite domestic and everyday, and it’s appealingly British,” says Thomas. “It’s a reflection of urban and suburban difficulties.” He explains that the scenes of being stuck in the queue or on the train are small-scale manifestations of disempowerment that run through Sainsbury’s narrative. Yet while the ad ends with a positive sentiment, “the implicit message of the ad is that to make Christmas work is really just a gingerbread fantasy.”

For Thomas, brands are engaging in the construction of Christmas as a reflection of emotionally tough times. Public culture is under unprecedented strain in terms of trustworthiness, but also in terms of uncertainty about the future. The manifestations of disempowerment in the John Lewis and Sainsbury’s ads – while aiming to be warm-hearted – highlight the difficulties that people are experiencing in real life.

Sainsbury’s captures the time pressures many people now face
Sainsbury’s (2016) ©

Effort and duty
In 2014, there was a general shift towards the emotional and symbolic values of sacrifice and sharing at Christmas, but 2015 saw adland split into two camps – brands like Sainsbury’s tried to ‘keep the magic alive’ by promoting the Christmas fantasy, while others decided to expose the more absurd traditions around the holidays with campaigns like Currys PC World’s #SparetheAct.

This year’s ads are characterised by effort, work and challenge. Heathrow’s first ever Christmas spot – ‘Coming Home’ – follows two ageing teddy bears as they land at the airport. “It’s an ad of in-between states,” says Thomas. “These two old teddy bears spend this whole ad just wandering like empty vessels in what you might call the non-space of an airport.” Although subtle, the two bears are attempting to negotiate a challenging situation. Work is manifested here in a quite symbolic way. This is not a comic scenario, nor a story of discovery, but rather “a metaphor for finding your way through the difficulties in life.”

“The Waitrose ad works similarly to the Heathrow advert in that it’s just one big, symbolic allegory about effort,” says Thomas. The supermarket’s commercial follows a courageous robin undertaking an epic, nearly fatal journey home to Britain, where a young girl awaits his return. “These are task-centred narratives, mini epics of pure effort,” continues Thomas.

Christmas travel is an ordeal in itself Christmas travel is an ordeal in itself
Heathrow Airport (2016) ©

German supermarket chains Lidl and Edeka have embarked on similar Christmas narratives. In fact, the latter tells a rather unusual story of positive resignation, in which two overworked parents decide to say ‘oh, screw it’ to spend time with their kids. “You see the gritty construction of Christmas,” says Thomas. “It’s all about effort and work, and with Edeka we see the respect for that effort most dramatically.”

Work and duty are also at the centre of Sainsbury’s campaign, presenting Dave’s Christmas as a to-do list that needs to be completed. “It’s an inversion of children’s Christmas,” explains Thomas. “Their list is a list of desires that gets fulfilled, while the grown-ups’ list is a list of things to do for Christmas. They are symbolic opposites. Ultimately, the fantasy in this ad is about becoming more efficient.”

Edeka and Sainsbury’s respond to the tension between reality and fantasy in two different ways. Edeka feels like a portrayal of pure reality. “The response is to say ‘Fuck it! There’s more important things than wrapping gifts,’” says Thomas. Contrary to the parents’ positive resignation in Edeka’s spot, Sainsbury’s has created a fantasy – albeit one of effort and duty – where everything does get done. “Obviously, tone-wise, it’s jolly and warm, it’s satirical and full of humour. But what is powering the story is this idea of ‘how can I be more efficient?’ And that’s a surprisingly new take.”

Brands are acknowledging the effort that goes into preparing for the festive period
Waitrose (2016) ©

Moving inwards
“More than ever, many of this year’s ads are about me, me, me,” says Thomas. Although it’s a warm-hearted version of individualism, Sainsbury’s story of Dave ends by saying “the greatest gift that I can give is me” – an unusual concept for a festive ad. “Even though we understand that what is meant is my time, my love, my thoughtfulness, the way it has been conceptualised is a reflection of individualism.”

However, it’s not about what one can get for themselves, but instead about what they can give. The distinction here is that the ‘me’ is not a selfish ‘me’, but one that is self-centred. “The self is seen as the centre of responsibility, action and meaning,” explains Thomas. “This does not mean that all we do is think about ourselves, but we see the world from our point of view.”

Many of this year’s ads are about me, me, me. Even though we understand that what is meant is my time, my love, my thoughtfulness, the way it has been conceptualised is a reflection of individualism

As a result, many ads are moving into smaller areas of concern and closed off worlds. Where they once were about promoting a spirit of collectivism and altruism – think of Sainsbury’s Mog’s Christmas Calamity or John Lewis’ The Man on the Moonthis year’s ads are rather family-centric.

“What goes along with individualism is this notion of moving inwards. We’ve gone from community to family and, consequently, by moving into the immediate family, we’ve gone further and further into smaller spaces and fields of interest,” says Thomas. This is true with the ads from Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and Edeka. The world that seems most open and inclusive, the Sainsbury’s ad, is also the ad that sees everything in the most strongly individual terms. “What we’re seeing here is the tension between a need to be a part of something bigger and the inability to really trust anything apart from your own efforts and instincts.”

There’s nothing more important than family when it comes to Christmas
Edeka (2016) ©

Insights and opportunities
People want to buy into a Christmas fantasy of snow, tinsel and turkey, right? In reality, what we’re seeing in this year’s adverts is the warm-hearted yet fragile spirit of the season. Rather than painting a stereotypical Christmas scene, brands have created emotionally complex scenarios that reflect the challenges of hard-working Brits. “People are staying home for the holidays as times are tight, and that really seems to be playing out in these ads,” says Thomas. “We see the work of Christmas, which is really different from the sleigh bells and shiny front room jollity that we’d often get. We’re really seeing the effort of an entire country.”

So why are brands moving away from the choreographed, glossy image of Christmas? “Because there’s an absolutely unprecedented feeling of disempowerment among the general population,” says Thomas. “There’s a strong feeling of struggle. Austerity measures are still continuing.” And with the pound’s value weaker now than it was during the financial crisis, money woes are causing 72% of Brits to tame their spending. Effort, work and disempowerment are simply themes in tune with times being tough – a reflection of the squeezed middle and the treadmill of having to work hard just to stay afloat.

People are staying home for the holidays as times are tight, and that really seems to be playing out in these ads. We’re really seeing the effort of an entire country

“There’s a well-informed wariness on the part of brands to try and tell us that they’ve got all the answers, because no other public bodies or greater structures in our lives have been able to do that,” says Thomas. “Brands are understanding that it’s not such a good idea to try and fill that space in a direct way. That they shouldn’t try and pretend they have all the answers. Brands need to reflect uncertainty rather than try to solve uncertainty.” Barbour, however, is one of this year’s outliers. With its reinterpretation of ‘The Snowman and The Snowdog’, the English fashion brand “tries to compress a lifetime’s experience into a jacket. Unlike other brands, which step back from the picture and just say ‘look at the life’, it’s trying to force its way into a well-known story, almost as if a Ford Mondeo was trying to become Cinderella’s coach.”

What we are seeing is a more general shift of “the brand taking more and more of a back seat.” As official pronouncements by large public bodies have reached record low levels of trust, brands are seemingly terrified of promoting product features in their ads and have absorbed the importance of creating an emotional connection. “A smart way of doing this is to bullshit us a bit less than usual – also called ‘keeping it real.’” Brands are turning to a warm-hearted, relatable form of satire. “It’s the sweetest way of admitting that everything is not completely rosy,” says Thomas. As the distinctions between fantasy and reality are being challenged, eroded and subverted like never before, “sparkling depictions of a perfect Christmas are a thing of the past.”

Alex Rückheim is a Behavioural Analyst at Canvas8. Having lived in nine countries, he holds a master’s degree in Strategic Marketing and is fascinated by cross-cultural shifts in consumer behaviour. He is also the founder of design-focused site GOODS WE LIKE.