Christmas ads are all part of the holiday festivities. And while some focus on recapturing the child-like joy of the occasion or the gatherings that define the day, Marks & Spencer's ad is leading the 2016 parade with a festive twist on feminism.
Its spot – featuring unlikely starlet Mrs Claus – is winning over women across the UK by reminding them that the retailer knows who the real heroes of Christmas are. “Have you met Mrs Claus?” asks her dedicated arm of the M&S site. “She’s the remarkable female half of the world’s best-loved power couple and she’s bringing Christmas with love again this year.”
‘With love from Mrs Claus’ picked up over six million views on YouTube within ten days of its debut in November.  Created by RKCR/Y&R, the campaign’s goal is to bolster the emotional connection M&S has with the British public. “We know this is a very commercial season,” says Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of customer, marketing and M&S.com. “While we will be trading and we have a campaign that will deliver the product categories, it was time to reinforce that emotional bond. We’re the most trusted brand in the nation and we want to make sure that’s reinforced.” 
The spot documents Mrs Claus attentively preparing and sending her husband off to deliver presents – but she has her own tasks to complete. Because while Santa gives gifts to those who’ve been good, she helps those who want to give something to someone else. Dressed in a red dress and equipped with a badass attitude, Mrs Claus hops on her snowmobile and drives into an icy version of the Batcave, where she boards a red helicopter called R-Dolf. She’s on a mission to deliver a gift that’ll save Christmas for one special child. And by the time Santa returns home, she’s already asleep on the sofa. When he asks her how her day was, she modestly replies, ”You know, quiet.”
The advert was accompanied by a social push, which saw Mrs Claus take over the M&S social accounts and popularise the #LoveMrsClaus hashtag, and in-store actors dressed as the character provided random acts of kindness (like free coffees), which included giving £5 to a charity of the customer’s choice.  Meanwhile, on the M&S site, there’s an interview with Mrs Claus herself, alongside her M&S shopping picks so that viewers can snap up her style. She is aspirational, but – more importantly – she is relatable. “I’d describe my music tastes as diverse,” she says at one point in her ‘interview’. “Let’s just say Beyoncé is on high rotation.”
Mrs Claus appeals to the everywoman
Marks & Spencer (2016) ©
This desire to connect with customers comes at a time when M&S is struggling to uphold its brand as a department store. While the retailer has invested in 200 more Simply Food store openings, in November 2016 it confirmed that 30 of its regular outlets are set to shut.  In May, freshly appointed chief executive Steve Rowe promised to leave Gen Y fast fashion addicts and seasonal trends by the wayside, instead turning back to ‘Mrs M&S’ – married women, predominantly over 50, who want to feel stylish. "We need to cherish and celebrate her and make sure we're giving her exactly what she needs at the right time," said Rowe. 
And Mrs Claus seems to be a figurehead for this shift – one that resonates with a buyer demographic which is 58% female, and 78% over 35.  “A lot of women like myself are already feeling disenfranchised,” says 51-year-old M&S shopper Catherine. “It's not how we want to be seen. We are crying out for contemporary clothes that are sexy with a good fit and a good finish and that are reasonably priced."  Between her demure but stylish red attire and slick arsenal of vehicles, Mrs Claus is an aspirational figurehead for this group – and one that still goes unappreciated at one of the most stressful times of year.
There’s a lot of striving in this year’s ads. We see the work – work of Christmas is really different from the sleigh bells overdub and suburban, jolly front room that we’ve seen beforeRob Thomas, founder of Practical Semiotics
A significant portion of the spot hints at the amount of work that goes into crafting the perfect Christmas. Given that the average Brit spends around half their pay cheque on gifts alone over the festive period, Christmas is often a time that’s overlaid with stress.  Since 72% curb their spending due to money worries anyway, times are tight for Brits in 2016 – and many of the Christmas adverts reflect this.  “There’s a lot of striving in this year’s ads,” says Rob Thomas, founder of Practical Semiotics. “We see the work – work of Christmas is really different from the sleigh bells overdub and suburban, jolly front room that we’ve seen before. Compare this to last year’s M&S Christmas ad, which was very glossy and choreographed, a bit like an MTV video. A lot of the other brands have really moved away from that.” 
The advert also comes at a time when the dialogue around women’s rights is at its loudest. While the Hillary 2016 campaign made US history, celebrities like Emma Watson and Beyoncé have become bona fide representatives of the mainstream feminist movement. And, of course, brands are getting on board. Netflix has been shaming the television industry for its poor representation of women, and media offerings like Lenny and WhoHaha are giving women a platform to celebrate each other for everything from their hilarity to their intellect. Now, M&S is stepping up to show its solidarity – something that Boots also touches upon in its ‘The Gift of Beauty’ Christmas ad.
M&S knows mums are the real Christmas heroes
Nom & Malc, Creative Commons (2015) ©
Insights and opportunities
More than anything, Marks & Spencer is looking to tug at the heartstrings of women across Britain this year. “We know that emotional campaigns build stronger brands over time but we also know they drive sales and conversion,” says Bousquet-Chavanne. “In the busy retail world, when we’re all about selling product, we felt establishing an emotional connection was very important.”  And given that emotive campaigns outsell informative ones by 19%, it’s a smart move. 
One of the ways it taps into this emotion is by demonstrating its understanding of the work that goes on behind-the-scenes at Christmas. Even the choice of relatively unknown actress Janet McTeer over the likes of Helen Mirren hints at the understanding that normal women are often expected to behave like superheroes at Christmas. After all, women put in an average of 270 hours of work to make the festive period perfect, and 58% of them say it’s a time of stress, versus around 40% of men. 
Mrs Claus epitomises the huge efforts our customers put in to making the festive season special and represents the love and togetherness that people want to feel and see in abundancePatrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of marketing for M&S
While Heathrow’s ad sees the struggle of two elderly grandparents making their way home, and devoted dad Dave similarly grafts for his kids in the Sainsbury’s spot, the M&S ad still occupies a realm of fantastical storytelling. “M&S has hit a middle ground,” says Thomas.“It’s an epic narrative, but it’s depicting effort.”  But perhaps this is to further appease the 50-something women it’s targeting. While Gen Yers may be hungry for authenticity, Boomers are an optimistic bunch; 59% feel younger than they are, and they’re one of the most well-travelled and culture-hungry generations.  So an aspirational depiction of the work Christmas takes is far more fitting for Mrs M&S than one that’s slogging over a stove or panicking about her bank balance.
With 61% of shopping for presents and 54% of shopping for food at Christmas done by women in the UK, M&S knows exactly who its campaign should be addressing.  “[Mrs Claus] epitomises the huge efforts our customers put in to making the festive season special,” says Bousquet-Chavanne, “and represents the love and togetherness that people want to feel and see in abundance.”  Because while gender roles may continue to blur, for now, mothers remain the true saviours of Christmas.
Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not busy analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.
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