The true meaning of this year’s Christmas ads 

In the words of Mariah Carey, it’s time. And for many of us, it has been since early November…  

No sooner than the pumpkins started to turn did the festive lights switch on, the shopfront displays go up and the mega media buy come to fruition. Yes, it’s Christmas ad season. You might say it has been for weeks – but we had to wait until they were all out to see how they landed, of course… 

Subtle shade about slow editors to one side, what does this year’s offering tell us about the mood of the nation – and how brands can best earn their place with customers, citizens, and communities in the New Year? Here are three trends driving this year’s festive offering and how they’ll impact us in 2024. 

1. Entertainment, not earnestness  

This year, a slew of ads have focused on sharing festive and joyful content to get us excited for Christmas. Think relatable recreations of family dinners with debates about when to eat cheese from Asda, or eye roll-inducing scenarios where guests arrive earlier than expected from Waitrose. We’ve even seen some new traditions mooted – from Duracell’s ‘Bunny Saves Christmas’ to Boots’ ‘Who Gives Presents to Santa’.  

Celebs and entertainment crossovers are also a clear example of this trend towards fabulousness. Whether it’s Micheal Bublé and Graham Norton, or festive remakes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it feels like the sparkle is back.  

This is a clear shift from previous years, where ads have tugged on heartstrings and primarily focused on what Contagious has called ‘purposeful earnestness’. In 2023 and beyond, we are seeing a shift to entertainment around big cultural moments.  

2. All I want for Christmas is authenticity 

Authenticity has become a major buzzword in our industry, but it is often overlooked in practice. Not surprising when so many practitioners operate in a privileged London bubble. We need to get out into communities and understand lived experience to create meaningful content. Easier said than done, particularly at busy times of the year, but two ads stood out for getting it right this year, in my view. 

First up, Shelter’s ad uses ‘traditional’ Christmas good-time tropes to set us up for an emotional fall: revealing what it’s really like for kids stuck in temporary accommodation. The protagonist is Maddy, played by an actor, but the creatives behind the campaign worked directly with people with lived experiences of homelessness and temporary accommodation to really understand what their lives are, or were, like. The result is an emotional, powerful statement. 

Next, JD with what many are calling this year’s ‘winner’. The sportswear brand shows up with a mix of cultural nostalgia and an appreciation of what Christmas is like for diverse communities – brought to life through its bag for life. The ad features working-class and Afro-Caribbean communities who show off cultural quirks in simple ways. Kano also adds some celeb sparkle to what feels like a nod to Nike’s Nothing Beats A Londoner

3. It’s giving Nostalgia 

Remember Tesco’s 2007 Christmas ad featuring the Spice Girls and John Lewis’ Christmas ad featuring music by The Smiths? These ads cut through not only for their talkability but because they evoke a sense of nostalgia, sparking debate and laughter. Nostalgia isn’t just a feature of Christmas – the nineties and noughties are back in a big way, from the return of Girls Aloud to the massive success of documentaries like Beckham and Robbie Williams on Netflix.   

We’re seeing brands respond accordingly, with M&S Food and Aldi featuring characters from earlier festive campaigns – and Coca-Cola’s unwavering commitment to ‘Holidays Are Coming’. System 1’s Test Your Ad platform scored these ads the highest possible long-term effectiveness rating of 5.9 stars, proof of the power of nostalgia.  

What it all means 

Cookie-cutter approaches are never good, but there are some broad learnings for brand and comms professionals. Brits are living in their pessimistic eras about what’s going on in the world – but are more optimistic about their personal lives and local communities – as my colleague Lisa Mai referenced in an earlier blog. They want to feel seen and understood, not patronised with generic doom and gloom. Nostalgia and authentic representation of specific communities go a long way in the right direction and will continue to be important in 2024. For me, that’s the real lesson of this year’s Christmas ad offering. 

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