It’s Christmas! Almost.
And (spoiler alert) Christmas is all about selling you stuff. Retailers are having the time of their lives, but they’re also facing cut-throat competition where only a perfect little Penguin will do.
Everyone’s trying hard for a heartwarming Christmas ad. But not everyone’s doing a great job.
What John Lewis does right
The John Lewis Christmas advert has become an annual tradition. A chance for us all to gather together to see a song being covered and a story being told. It’s a success that doesn’t just lead to brand recognition and sales – it gives John Lewis a whole new product line with tie-in toys and books.
I’d say its success comes down to three core elements:
- Audience: This is an ad that knows its audience (other than copywriters and advertising professionals) and gives them something to connect with. You relate to the boy’s magical friendship with his penguin. You relate to the penguin’s search for love. And you relate to the big selling idea: the joy you bring when you give a gift (whether you’re playing the parent or the boy).
- Spirit: A good Christmas advert embraces the seasonal spirit. That’s a feeling of family, togetherness, celebration. It’s the warmth of home, told through images and sounds. Basically, I’m saying the house in the advert looks lovely – the sort of place you want to be, and the sort of life you want to live.
- Payoff: Shoving something into your memory means giving you a decent payoff at the end. However hard you work through the rest of the advert, it’s those closing moments that will really determine how sticky the damn thing is. And there’s something about that boy’s face when he looks up at his mum – the look of ‘Er, yeah, it’s kind of awkward but I love my penguin’ – that’s unforgettable.
The short version: Crikey, that’s a great advert, isn’t it?
But you already knew that bit. So let’s look at a less good one instead.
What the hell happened with House of Fraser?
Watch that advert, then accept my sincere apologies for making you do so.
It’s a bit less good, right?
In fact, I’d say it’s less good across three familiar elements:
- Audience: We want an audience to relate to our advert. And hey, what’s more relatable than a model? Everyone loves models. They love how they get paid for being attractive, as if being attractive wasn’t already enough.
- Spirit: Is there anything more inviting than a pasty-white wall with thin, wispy lights thrown across it? Yes. Even the Sainsbury’s advert ABOUT A WAR had more warmth in it than this.
- Payoff: But what about that payoff? I mean, the models spent some of their modelling money to buy gifts for people they knew. It’s such a clever idea – how about, at this time of giving gifts, we show some people handing over gifts, without even a cursory effort to make them meaningful gifts?
Okay. Maybe I’m being harsh. But what really irks me about this advert is that central theme, the big concept that’s apparently tying the campaign together: ‘Be you, no matter who’.
I like it. I think it’s strong.
In fact, TK Maxx’s stunning Me. By Me. campaign earlier this year is the perfect example of how to get this sort of thing right – normal people, doing normal things.
But surely the worst way to convey this idea of inclusion, of being okay with whoever you are, is to open up with ‘I’m a model’ – or ‘I’m in a subset of people you probably don’t belong to’.
Christmas is for lying
House of Fraser made some odd choices and I’d be interested to know their thinking. If I had to guess, I would assume it was supposed to have a behind-the-scenes flavour, a documentary style that will make the whole thing feel more immediate.
But the fact is that Christmas isn’t about the truth.
It’s not about going for an honest, upfront approach – however much you think that’ll help you stand out. It’s about little more than the surface warmth, the image of happy families laughing together, not the secret arguments they’re having in the kitchen.
For just a few days a year, nobody gives a damn about the truth. They just want to feel warm and fuzzy.
And this year, House of Fraser has helped by giving you an advert with all the warmth of an ice box.