The Grinch who stole Christmas creativity

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Hordes of desperate people queueing for hours, pushing and shoving to grab the last few items on the shelves…

Not the potential aftermath of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but rather the scene at Aldi stores around the country in November as shoppers fought to get their hands on their very own Kevin the Carrot stuffed toy – the returning star of Aldi’s Christmas ad campaign. And with reports of the toys fetching upwards of £500 on eBay, it’s clear just how much of an impact festive ads can have.

Over the past 10 years, the buzz around big brands’ Christmas campaigns has grown exponentially; the public waits with bated breath to see what yuletide yarn John Lewis, Marks & Spencer et al will spin each year. And this increased engagement has driven creativity, with each brand and their creative agency hoping to deliver the year’s most celebrated idea.

But it seems that much of this year’s offering has left people underwhelmed; industry and mainstream press alike have criticised the bulk of Christmas 2018’s ads for failing to live up to previous years’ efforts. The big winner this year, – at least in terms of column inches – was Iceland’s missive against palm oil, which was banned from airing on TV, but racked up over 5 million views online.

Much of the criticism levelled at this year’s ads stems from a perceived shift towards a heavy product focus compared to the emotional clout of recent years – trying to sell as much product as possible (or tickets to the upcoming Elton John biopic movie in the case of John Lewis). This change in tack is of course understandable given the challenging retail context; not a day goes by without news of another profit warning or raft of store closures, so it makes sense that brands want to capitalise as much as possible on the commercial opportunity that Christmas presents.

But what’s to blame for this perceived dip in quality? Is it really a case of CMOs chasing coins like C-suite Scrooges, creativity be damned?

People have been spoiled with year after year of engaging, exciting and tear-jerking Christmas ads. So much so that expectations are now so high that it has become near impossible for brands to deliver. It seems that Christmas starts earlier every year, and public speculation around big brands’ Christmas plans begins months in advance.

And it’s this level of scrutiny that’s the real culprit of stifled creativity; the pressure to produce a holiday masterpiece has left ad-land creatives with little wiggle room. In many cases this has meant a return to tried-and-tested formulae; 2018 is Kevin the Carrot’s third annual outing for Aldi, and others have placed big-name stars front and centre to ensure they make a splash. 

So where do they go from here? It might seem like brands are in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t dilemma. But maybe, just maybe, if they stop worrying about winning Christmas, and instead embrace the true spirit of the season and give the thoughtful, selfless gift of an ad without ulterior motive, they will be able to recapture some of that Christmas magic that first captured the public’s imagination.

Max Durston, Flamingo