How Christmas TV Ads Grew to John Lewis Proportions

In the UK, Christmas TV ads are something of a national institution. When you start seeing the latest instalments from John Lewis & Partners or Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot, you know for certain that Christmas songs and decorations aren’t far behind.

Jeff Beer at Fast Company likens the British Christmas ad obsession to the US Super Bowl’s yearly advertising extravaganza. It’s the one time of year that gets everyone talking about the ads on our screens.

So how did we get here?

It Begins: The 1950s & 1960s

TV ads hit British screens for the first time in 1955. The first ever ad shown on our shores was for Gibbs SR Toothpaste; an ad with a very different, much more sedate pace compared to the ads we’re used to today…

In general, ads took a little more of an “advertorial” tone, as excellently shown in this 1955 Heinz beans ad: it’s little more than a recipe with a bit of marketing polish.

Though few British Christmas ads from this era appear online, there are some relics to be found. This incredibly-sexist-by-today’s-standards spot (which appears to be an Australian version of a British ad – hence the price in Aussie Guineas) is one of the first examples we could find of a product being actively advertised on telly as a Christmas gift.

The below ad from the same era also deserves an honourable mention – is that Father Christmas, Rudolf, et al. flying through the night’s sky? No! It’s a Hoovermatic! And it’s brought its friends!

Ads as Culture: The 1970s

As we entered the 70s, advertisers further flexed their storytelling muscles. The 70s saw the rise of classic, memorable ad campaigns like Milk Tray, Denim aftershave, Old Spice, Cadbury’s Flake, and the indomitable Smash aliens. Chocolate and aftershave make excellent Christmas gifts (instant mashed potato, less so).

But what do you get for the “hardest people in the world to buy for”? Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers have the answer…

It seems that the 70s were a golden era of star-studded Christmas ads. Now defunct department store Woolworths would pack their Christmas ads with British TV personalities hamming up their enjoyment of the shop’s latest wares – a trend that endured through the 80s too.

Packing an ad with the likes of Kenny Everett, “Diddy” David Hamilton, Leslie Crowther, and Tim Brooke-Taylor may seem painfully cheesy by today’s standards, but these were massive household names at the time. Basic though the ads were, these ads certainly wouldn’t have been cheap!

Marketing Maturity: 1980s

The 80s is famously the era of big business getting bigger – not to mention the hair and shoulder pads. And naturally as business gets more sophisticated, so does the advertising.

As ever, advertisers focused on memorability and creativity – often with a touch of storytelling here and there. The 70s may have ramped up the trend of using well-known faces to tell stories, but the 80s really ran with it.

Any film buff will tell you that the 80s were a great era for sci-fi movies, a sentiment that was echoed (on a much lower budget, of course) by ads of the decade – much like these three examples:

During the 80s, ads also became more willing to tug at our heartstrings rather than outright advertise. This is a crucial throughline in Christmas advertising to come – modern festive ads don’t usually lead with individual products any more (a far cry from our Woolworths examples) and instead aim to create a heartwarming ethos around the brand in question.

The Yellow Pages’ J. R. Hartley Ad is one of the first examples of an ad that became a cultural phenomenon; and one which did so by warming our cockles with a good story:

This decade is where you see Christmas ads starting to become the phenomenon we know today; seasonal ads that lean on the emotional, rose-tinted, soft-focus festive nostalgia that surrounds the holidays. Case in point: The OXO Family.

The OXO Family was a year-round series of ads for OXO gravy products that followed a fictionalised traditional British family, a little like a mild-mannered sitcom. Much like Christmas is a big event in countless British homes, Christmas was a big deal for the OXO Family too. As was the quandary of what to do with the leftover turkey…

Totally Radical: The 1990s

The 90s is the decade where Christmas advertising starts to really come into its own, with modern classics like 1994’s infamous Coca-Cola truck:

And Yellow Pages’ Mistletoe ad:

You’ll notice that ads are starting to deviate even more from the actual benefits that the products provide, creating more of a warm and fuzzy festive feeling towards the brand rather than leaning on any of its practical features. Obviously this isn’t the case for all ads, but it certainly shows more of an emphasis on memorability and brand presence than anything the company actually does.

This became a common theme in the 90s: strange or thought provoking ads which aim to set tongues wagging rather than showing the explicit benefits of using a product. It’s all about building curiosity and brand awareness. Just look at some of the other non-festive ads of the time to see what we mean.

Guinness’s Dancing Man and Surfer ads create a sense of surreal anticipation based on their “Good things come to those who wait” slogan. Sony built slightly unsettling curiosity with their mildly disturbing Mental Wealth campaign. Budweiser’s now infamous “Frogs” and “Whassup?” campaigns echoed this “fairly unrelated to the product at hand” approach across the pond.

A New Millennium: the 2000s

This is where the infamous festive ads that we know and love today really start to take shape. Marks & Spencer made a strong, early, star-studded start with their somewhat traditional 2001 ad:

If this ad’s anything to go by, we hadn’t come a long way from the Woolworths ads of yore. The faces have changed, but the format remains largely the same; with appearances from Zoe Ball, Julian Clary, Honor Blackman, George Best, and Hugh Laurie.

But in 2007, we saw the first glimpse of widespread festive advertising for high-end department store John Lewis. Their artistic “Shadow” Christmas advert shows all of the various Christmas gifts you can buy from John Lewis stores – transforming them into an impressive bit of shadow art:

Their ad from the year after focuses directly on pairing the right gifts with the right people, rather than the more grandiose narratives they tend to offer nowadays. The gratingly saccharine (and now seemingly mandatory) cover of a well known song is still well and truly present though.

The Modern Christmas: 2010s

John Lewis starts the decade off strong with 2010’s Tribute to Givers – again, celebrating the love and consideration that goes into gift-giving:

The retailer arguably reaches its emotional zenith in 2015 with it’s infamous Man on the Moon spot – again, celebrating gift giving in a unique way. If memory serves, there had been a lot of dialogue about elderly mental health that year, making the ad particularly poignant.

In the teens, two new Christmas marketing contenders approached – Sainsbury’s and Aldi.

Sainsbury’s festive ads tend to tug quite strongly at the heartstrings. 2014’s Christmas Truce is particularly notable here – marking the 100 year anniversary of World War I’s famous 1914 Christmas truce.

But advertisers also like to tell their own heart-melting Christmas stories too. Sainsbury’s Mog’s Christmas Calamity ad from 2015 and Aldi’s now well-established ad-break mainstay, Kevin the Carrot (who debuted in 2016) are prime examples of gentle, partly-animated festive fables.

Aldi even poke fun at the reigning champion of Christmas ads too:

M&S still weigh in occasionally, with the sweet-yet-modern story of Mrs Claus (2016) being a prime example.

However, to look at this through a more critical lens, Christmas advertising has become a bit of a heartstring-pulling competition with a hint of brand awareness, rather than more direct attempts at marketing. The products are almost incidental at this point. A cynic might say that festive ads are now about telling engrossing, glitzy stories that happen to end with “by the way, don’t forget to shop at X” – but hey, if it works, it works. You can’t argue with results.

In Conclusion: The 2020s and Beyond…?

By now, Christmas TV spots have become a British cultural staple. Festive ads have become less about the direct products and sales, favouring wrapping you in a heart-melting blanket of schmaltzy positive sentiment. Is it good because it gets us talking? Or is it annoyingly cloying and sickly? You can just as easily argue both sides.

However, festive TV advertising – and TV advertising as a whole – faces a mammoth hurdle: the rise of streaming video services. As younger generations increasingly favour online streaming services to regular telly, what will that mean for brands who traditionally advertise on TV? Paid-for services like Netflix and YouTube Premium don’t feature ads, so some viewers may render themselves immune to being advertised to through the small screen.

Larger brands will likely still splash the cash on telly spots, though an increasing number are converting their TV ads to digital platforms. At the time of writing, we’ve already seen YouTube ads for Compare the Market and for numerous supermarkets, so it’s likely that other household names will find value by going the same way.

Pay-per-click advertising (like YouTube ads) provide great potential to advertisers. Unlike their televisual counterparts, PPC ads can be carefully and cost-effectively targeted towards users who are most likely to buy. A move towards more cost-efficient digital advertising may also open the door for small, challenger brands to gain a foothold online, potentially creating their own memorable, cockle-warming campaigns!

Will some smart, small brand come along and be the online equivalent of John Lewis? We’d love to see it, but time will tell.

Got an idea that you feel is going to be the online equivalent of Kevin the Carrot? Or worried that your festive marketing idea will get eaten alive in the online advertising noise? Get in touch with the PPC experts at OLCO Design – book your free discovery call today!

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