Over the past decade, a new festive marketing tradition has been born – the incredibly impressive, and usually tear-jerking, Christmas adverts from the likes of retail giants John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Argos, Aldi, and Marks & Spencer. Christmas TV ads themselves aren’t necessarily a new revelation, but the bar has been raised significantly in recent years, and with that, so have the expectations. In 2022, the Christmas TV advert release is one of the most highly anticipated moments of the festive season.
With that in mind, the question starts to form – if Christmas TV ads are getting bigger, better, and definitely more expensive, every single year, are they actually worth it anymore? Is this year-on-year oneupmanship just turning what was originally a heart-warming festive tradition into a ‘who has the most money?’ competition that only the big players can take part in? Let’s take a look.
Where Christmas Adverts Began
The Christmas TV ad phenomenon as we know it has only been around for the past decade or so, but the concept wasn’t entirely brand new.
The rise of Christmas-specific TV adverts happened mainly during the 1990s. One of the first Christmas TV campaigns was released by the Yellow Pages in 1992. The ad, titled Mistletoe, shows the story of a young boy who isn’t tall enough to kiss a girl under the mistletoe until he grabs a Yellow Pages. This ad set the scene for the heart-string-pulling format that we see today. A few years later, the unforgettable Coca-Cola‘ Holidays Are Coming’ campaign graced our screens in 1995. This similarly sentimental ad introduced us all to the iconic red truck – a now classic of the festive period.
Other brands took slightly different approaches to the Christmas ad, most notably M&S with their mouthwatering 2006 Christmas Food advert. The ad features slow-motion shots of a variety of Christmas dinner table essentials, such as turkey, stuffing, and Christmas Pudding, and a distinctly sultry voiceover. It was here that their classic ‘It isn’t just food, it’s M&S food’ was cemented.
The 2010s saw the birth of a John Lewis Christmas – the undisputed founder of the modern-day Christmas TV advert. However, John Lewis didn’t achieve this coveted title overnight. The retailer first started releasing its Christmas TV adverts in 2007, making it an annual tradition since then. Differing from predecessors, John Lewis’s ads have all been highly produced to an almost movie-level quality, accompanied by a, usually acoustic, cover of a popular song.
2007 – 2011’s ads saw some success, but things really started to take off in 2012 with ‘The Journey’. This ad featured a snowman who went on a long and treacherous journey to find the perfect gift for Mrs Snowman. This ad featured an acoustic version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s classic ‘The Power of Love’ by a then 20-year-old Gabrielle Aplin. The cover very quickly went to number 1 on the UK Top 40 charts. The campaign was so much of a success, John Lewis released a children’s book to accompany the ad. This advert was being talked about everywhere and its success as a large brand marketing play was evident, with it attributing to a 44.3% year-on-year sales increase in the five weeks to Christmas and helping Johnlewis.com break through the £800m mark in sales.
From here, the Christmas TV ad campaign showdown was born.
Since then, we’ve seen pretty much every major retailer get involved, from Asda to Boots, to Etsy and IKEA, all fighting for a slice of the pie. In 2022, the stakes have never been higher, and neither have the costs.
The Cost of Christmas Adverts
We’ve discussed the success of John Lewis and how their TV adverts helped to break sales records in 2012, but since the competition has become so fierce, the costs of producing and promoting these almost short films have become similarly record-breaking.
It’s reported that John Lewis’s 2018 ad, featuring Elton John, cost the brand a whopping £8 million to make. They’ve reportedly trimmed their budgets down since then, with 2021’s ad costing £1 million to make and a measly £5 million to promote. It’s difficult to find specific figures relating to the cost of other big players, such as Sainsbury’s and M&S, but they will most likely fall in line with John Lewis.
Although costs and expectation levels have shot up in the past 10 years, it seems that 2022 is going in a slightly different direction. As I’m sure you’re aware, a cost of living crisis has swept the UK and is threatening a very different type of festive season. As a result, many brands are changing tact.
Sainsbury’s and M&S launched their Christmas ads a week early this year, ahead of John Lewis, which is usually the first. This means that the Christmas adverts are on TV before Armistice Day for the first time in a decade, as studies have shown that people are bringing forward their Christmas purchases due to money shortages. There’s also the football World Cup in November this year, which is set to make those TV advertising placements come with an even heftier price tag, so it isn’t just the consumers that are feeling the pinch, but the brands too.
It’s not just the date of the release that is changing either. These big-time retailers are struggling to find the correct sentiment for their TV adverts, as the cost of living crisis leaves many families with less money to spend, but there is also the angle that this is the first Christmas in two years with absolutely no COVID restrictions.
Brands such as M&S and Lidl are promoting a charity angle with their adverts, leaning into the importance of community and sticking together through tough times, rather than showcasing extravagant table displays and gift ideas. Others, such as Boots and Sainsbury’s, are sticking to their luxury roots and focusing on over-the-top Christmas themes.
How these two approaches differ in terms of actual impact on the brand is yet to be seen. With more and more competition, the impact of these adverts as a whole seems to be diminishing.
How Effective are Christmas Adverts?
When evaluating the effectiveness of Christmas TV ads, you first need to consider what the goal is.
- Is it to drive in-store footfall? Aldi does this really well each year by encouraging people into store to buy Kevin the Carrot & co. plush toys and accompanying items, such as books and pyjamas. This is a great way to capitalise on the reach of their character-driven TV adverts.
- Is it to get people talking about your brand? This is where the most creative TV adverts can thrive, particularly those with an accompanying song, such as the John Lewis adverts.
- Is it to sell products? Boots are one of the few brands that focus on actual products within their advert, rather than going for a more generic Christmas story.
- Is it to drive social media engagement? As much as above-the-line marketing is mostly immeasurable, the impact on social media mentions, likes, shares, etc. is more than trackable and can help push a brand further than a standalone advert.
- Is it all of the above? If brands are spending millions of pounds on these adverts, you would hope to see some kind of impact across all of these.
I was on LinkedIn the other day when I noticed someone discussing how Tesco’s 2022 Christmas campaign is a little too on the nose, as it hints at the cost of living crisis and political instability of the country at the moment, and how they think Asda’s is far better – a joyous campaign featuring Buddy the Elf. The question that was asked was “do you think Tesco have messed up?”. To which, someone had commented, “does it really matter? A TV advert isn’t going to make me change supermarkets.” I tend to agree with this comment.
In 2022, we are so used to seeing opinion pieces on every single marketing move made by companies, from small startups to large corporations. We question and query every decision that is made, but are we beginning to miss the point?
Christmas TV advertising campaigns have become a staple on our TVs as soon as it hits winter, and we, as viewers, enjoy them so much because they are heart-warming festive treats that get us excited about the upcoming celebrations.
So, my response to the question of ‘how effective are Christmas TV adverts?’ is actually – it depends entirely on what the brand is aiming to do. With hefty costs involved, these kinds of large marketing campaigns are only accessible to the huge corporations of the world, so it’s unlikely that they are counting every pound made for every penny spent. That being said, I do imagine that the scaling back will continue to happen as the market becomes more saturated and the rewards are spread more thinly amongst the competitors.