Another Covid Christmas: 2021 in adverts

Last year, we asked ‘Has Covid-19 changed the face of the Christmas ad?' and 12 months on we can say with confidence, we think so.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty in the world, Christmas advertising has certainly been back in business for 2021 and we’ve taken a look at the annual big budget battles between brands and retailers to see what trends have emerged from the fresh creative that’s made its way on to our screens over the past few months.  

After a drop in advertising spend last year, the Advertising Assocation/WARC anticipated that for the 2021 Christmas season, UK companies would fork out their highest quarterly ad spend ever since figures started being compiled almost 40 years ago. This turned out to be the case, with the record £7.9bn spend up £1bn on 2020 as brands made big plans to ensure consumers’ hard-earned cash ends up in their tills.

Perhaps to ensure they got the biggest bang for their buck, one trend we spotted this year was that a number of brands launched their festive TV adverts earlier than usual: online retailer, Very, and fashion clothing brand, Gap, went live even before Halloween was done and dusted, with the former airing on 1st October – 85 days before Christmas. Asda, JD Sports, Boots and Sports Direct quickly followed, launching their efforts in the first week of November.

Likely, the move was also driven by other factors, such ongoing supply chain issues and product shortages playing on consumers’ minds. And with fears of last year’s cancelled Christmas, where England was limited to household bubbles two days before the day, brands are likely to have been keen to get the money in the tills sooner, rather than later.

2020 brought, dare we say it, unprecedented challenges to brands at the most lucrative time, which resulted in them tightening their belts, as discussed in last year’s blog. This time round, advertisers have been more prepared to expect the unexpected and we’d say this has been translated in their offerings.  

The big guns

Starting with the pinnacle of Christmas ads, the highly-anticipated John Lewis offer also launched early on 1st November, with this year’s story reminding viewers to be kind to strangers. Entitled ‘Unexpected Guest’, a boy meets a space traveller after she crash-lands on earth and proceeds to teach her various Christmas traditions, including eating mince pies and wearing festive jumpers.

Meanwhile, battling it out in the grocery sector, market leader, Tesco, featured Santa with a Covid passport at customs and travellers on a plane stopping and starting as travel restrictions flit between red and green, all to the tune of Queen’s ‘Don’t stop me now’.

Sainsbury’s rehashed 2016’s social media Mannequin Challenge, using it to depict a typical Christmas dinner with a family in festive freeze-frames (popping bubbly, pouring gravy) whilst the camera moved around them, before unleashing them with the closing message ‘It’s been a long time coming, so let’s savour every moment.’

In other efforts, the Co-op went for a ‘live’ news report from Dermot O’Leary at a ‘community fridge’, supporting local people most in need, and Morrisons paid tribute to the farming industry, championing them for making good things happen.

Outside grocery, M&S capitalised on the global uncertainly by encouraging consumers to embrace making the season anything but ordinary and Argos went completely over the top and declared ‘Baubles to last year, Christmas in ON!’

And perhaps most notable of all, the biggest retailer, Amazon, prescribed kindness as the greatest gift in a world of ‘pandemic anxiety.’

On the money

Evidently, there appears to be an emerging theme with a number of the big brands moving away from heart-wrenching, emotional storytelling, instead choosing to focus on a contextual social commentary in their bids to resonate with consumers.

For emotional leaders, John Lewis, the press reported mixed responses from consumers and the industry this year, with some welling-up over the relationship struck between two people who’d just met but research reported by the Drum found that it ‘deviated too far from the winning John Lewis formula.’

As the saying goes, ‘people will forget what you said and what you did, but people will never forget how they make you feel.’ However, research suggests that advertisers aren’t always hitting the spot in their attempts to achieve this and perhaps the pulling at audiences’ heartstrings has become tired as consumers become all-too-familiar with emotional formula of John Lewis’ yearly offerings.

After a decade of snowmen falling in love; building relationships with a man on the moon; and children desperate to share gifts with their loved ones, maybe it's now the case that consumers want stories that still have an emotional pull but resonate with them personally.

It seems this year, a number of the big players think so, which would explain why they have chosen to bring real world events into the mix and encourage consumers to support real people on their doorstep, in the midst of uncertainty. It will be interesting to see what John Lewis and creative teams cook up for 2022, as we’re all acutely aware: you never know what’s around the corner.

Categories: Opinion Marketing Branding