Never Knowingly Soft-sold

With John Lewis making actual headlines with its Christmas adverts, Mr Moth takes a look that is both wry and sideways at this season’s big television commercials.

Bear hare hipstare

Quick question – what’s your earliest memory of Christmas? Opening a much-longed-for present under the doting gaze of your parents? Decorating a tree with attic-dusted tinsel? Lying awake in bed, listening for the gentle clatter of sledge runner on rooftile? Amateurish, romantic nonsense. My first memory of Christmas is the Mars Celebrations advert. First screened in Britain in 1962, with a jaunty soundtrack provided by the Blues Brothers, this Christmas institution really captures the spirit of the season, with families, office workers and street cleaners dancing merrily in the sunny streets of what is probably a South American city. Ahh, headily evocative stuff. So go on, what’s your Christmas ad? Coke’s trucks? Boot’s Here Come the Girls? H Samuel’s weird CGI jeweller?

The idea that we would associate Christmas with advertisements of any kind is, of course, the deeply offensive, self-absorbed twaddle of a group of advertising agencies so far removed from actual human experience they might as well have their offices on the Moon. In the spirit of research, I asked  Twitter about their favourite Christmas advert. Responses varied from “Anything but M&S” to “Nothing recent”. And someone liked the Coke polar bears, which are actually amazing, if not quite as amazing as the Holidays are Coming trucks. But still, it’s hard to get excited about an advert. Oh, Quality Street have a new wrapper? Huh. Myleene Klass is bringing us the magic of the festive season via an indifferent catalogue, is she? Couldn’t give a shit, mate. I honestly think I might die of boredom if I see a Lindt chocolate reindeer. Oh, but John Lewis have a new Christmas ad? DROP EVERYTHING.

Hard to believe that John Lewis have been advertising on the telly for less than a decade. To be honest, though, until I moved to London I had no idea who John Lewis were. So maybe they’ve got the right idea, get the brand out there a bit more. This is the problem with department stores – unless you live somewhere that has one, they’re a bit of a mythological land, peopled with fairies, unicorns and orange-faced ladies at the perfume counter. So national advertising seems the way to go.

It was the kid that did it, in just their fourth Christmas advert. That ruddy kid. Waiting, waiting. The kid with his present, wrapped and ready. Waiting. For Christmas Day. Focused. To give, not to receive. A plinky-plonky Smiths cover, and that was it. A nation’s heart warmed by the generosity of that most inward-looking of beings, a small child. The manipulative little fuck.

Anyway, better humans than I have picked apart that advert, but let’s face it, it set the standard and all other Christmas ads chase. Even John Lewis ones. Like that one with the snowman trekking about to buy the perfect gift, that was oddly popular as well. They must be doing something right, so it is with a heavy heart that I subject myself to the latest one, The Hare and The Bear.

Well. I mean, you can’t deny that it’s technically excellent. That’s stop motion, though why exactly I can’t say. You’ve stop-motion animated something to look like a seventies Disney flick? That’s a lot of effort to achieve something awful. And I shan’t bother to dissect the narrative – beyond pondering if the Hare’s gift to the Bear is all this docile prey – because it’s been done to death. What’s odd is that this marks the second year in a row that John Lewis have shown their products being gifts for non-humans. Last year – snowmen. This year – woodland animals. I can only assume that this is a bid for universality. The pleased-looking middle class models of previous years may have been a bit too on-the-nose, a little close to preaching to the choir. Are you the kind of person who would shop at John Lewis? Why not shop at John Lewis? Oh, you already do. DID YOU LIKE YOUR CUSHION COVERS?

Speaking of covers, the music can’t go unremarked-upon. Usually when one does a plinky-plonky cover version for an advert it is of a song that wasn’t plinky-plonky in the first place, like when they did Sweet Child O’ Mine one year. But Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know *was like that already*! All you did there was add Lily Allen (which, ok, is better than Tom Chaplin, but still). At least Marks and Spencer got in some actual season-appropriate music.

A slow-motion cover is not Christmassy. Where did we get this idea? Why must Christmas be sad and slow? Think of Christmas songs. Slade. Wizzard. Cliff. There are no others, stop thinking. Even the slowest of the three – Cliff – is still upbeat. Christmas, there’s no two ways about it, is a cheerful time. That is the bloody POINT of it. Look, I’m not here to tell you about the ancient origins of the winter festival but I can tell you now that our ancestors weren’t sitting around in the dark thinking “You know what would get me through this? Ellie Goulding doing a minor-key Fall Out Boy cover”.  They would have wanted “Holidays are coming, Holidays are coming.” The other option is tinkly glockenspiel stuff, to evoke frost-sparkling winter nights, and that’s pretty much what M&S have gone for.

Dispensing of their usual cadre of all-age, one-size models (and Dannii Minogue), they’ve got Rosie Huntington-Whitely acting out a sequence of… well, they’d call them fairy tales, but Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin and The Wizard of Oz are not in the same category as Red Riding Hood. So I don’t know. Stories. They’ve been hammered about a bit to fit in with the actual products Marks and Spencer sell, too. I don’t remember Alice wearing so few clothes in Wonderland. I guess maybe in Carroll’s first draft it was more like that? Probably. And the Wizard of Oz is now Helena Bonham Carter done up as the Bride of Frankenstein? Ehh, it made sense at the drafting stage, I bet. I think Helena is only there because she thought it was a sequel to Alice in Wonderland. She gets confused, these days.

Dec fingering the Gingerbread Man.

It’s easy to get the idea that it’s only department stores (which M&S kind of is, I guess, but not really) that go big on their Christmas adverts. But really, they’re just fancy extensions of their Christmas window displays. True Christmas adverts, though, come from supermarkets. After all, where else do you buy your Christmas dinner from? And the presents for relatives you don’t care for? And emergency tinsel? While Tesco have done some good work in this arena in recent years (last year’s Tesco campaign basically consisting of “These are awesome songs you know well. We are therefore awesome by proxy” may not have exactly worked but at least the songs were, uh, awesome), and Morrisons is going in strong this year with Dec fingering the Gingerbread Man, the king of supermarket Christmas ads is Iceland.

Previous years have given us “Kerry Katona’s prawn ring”, which felt almost like some kind of prank on the part of the advertising agency – perhaps she hadn’t shared her (holidays are coming, holidays are coming…) coke – and set the tone for the years to come. Iceland Christmas adverts, let’s be clear, are not classy affairs. Kerry was followed by the bafflingly resurgent Jason Donovan and the equally-bafflingly surgent Stacey Solomon. The food,  set dressing, the music… yeah, they’re like the polar opposite of John Lewis. However, this year they have made an effort to go upmarket. I hope you will enjoy this, from an article in The Grocer (though presumably from the Iceland press release):

Set to a soundtrack of Michael Bublé’s cover of ‘Jingle Bells’, the 40-second advert will include the men taking part in a meat carving competition and the women ‘indulging’ in desserts

Ahh, yes. Men – you get the meat. Women – you get to ‘indulge’ in desserts. Make sure you’re back to 5:2 by Boxing Day, though, you fat pigs! Sorry did we say pigs? We meant sows. Hogs. Argh, fuck… women! Dodgy gender bullshit aside, the advert may attempt to be a bit more upmarket (it’s basically Sainsbury’s level, but still with that weird gloopy soft-focus they’ve used every year since Kerry Katona’s nose fell into a plate of éclairs) but it is fatally hamstrung by the product shots which are, after all, of Iceland food. No amount of Bublé can make a frozen Fish, Chip & Mushy Pea Stacks appetising.

Another new direction taken this year comes from Sainsbury’s. They are running their usual blippy product ads, but there’s also a monster three-and-a-half minute “trailer” doing the rounds, assembled from home video footage of “normal” families. Not put off by the simple use of inverted commas around the word normal? Why not watch it?

Yeeeeah, that went down pretty much as you’d expect, didn’t it? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll associate all this Christmassy guff with Sainsbury’s. Faltering, mispronounced rendition of “Deck the Halls”, excitable children, sad bloke on his own (that’s unfair, he seems happy enough) and a well-judged blast of Stop the Cavalry. But how cynical, how hollow it feels. These are supposedly real Christmases, cut and pasted into a TV advert. Personal life given over to business, rendering what should be memories down into commercial grease. Just because the people involved aren’t actors, doesn’t mean there’s anything real there after editing, after a soundtrack of uplifting music is added, after the brand name is brought up.  You can drape your sales pitch in tinsel and drown your jingle in sleigh bells, but you can’t co-opt memories of Christmas. Unless you’re Coca-Cola.


About Thom Willis

Thom is the curator of #microwrites - - and writes his own stories for He lives in London because, given the choice, who wouldn't?

19 thoughts on “Never Knowingly Soft-sold

  1. Sad you missed my two favourites this year; the Boots one, which is very dull but Smalltown Boy is such a beautifully odd choice of song and yet sounds really festive, and the Argos aliens which manages to be actually funny twice. The M&S one is so comically terrible one can only imagine the pitch meeting “…and then all her clothes fall off AGAIN, and she’s in the old Turkish Delight ad, and the prince – get this – THE PRINCE IS THE HANDSOME MAD HATTER……Then it’s wizard of Oz, right, and the Lion is a bird in a snood and THE SCARECROW IS THE HANDSOME MAD HATTER AGAIN and…”

    1. Ah, you can’t get em all, otherwise it becomes a bit of a checklist. I agree that Smalltown Boy was a bold choice of song, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. The Argos aliens can fuck off back to where they came from.

      1. Yes, this was when the Mars Corporation first broadcast the Celebrations advert. Hence it bring my earliest Christmas memory. Were we not all suckled at the teat of bite-sized Bounty bars being chucked about in gay abandon (gay meaning something different then) to hits from the Blues Brothers? It’s as much a part of the British Christmas as being a massive racist is part of Dutch festive traditions.

  2. I hadn’t seen the Boots one! I suppose it’s a bit of a retread of the John Lewis boy with a box but it is really *really* sweet. He’s Father Christmas!

  3. Seriously, what about Smalltown Boy says Christmas? Maybe it’s the refrain of “cry boy cry” that the ad fades out on?

  4. I suppose fleeing a small town to escape homophobic persecution is, in a way, very much like Mary and Joseph on a donkey.

  5. Even Doritos have got in on the act this year, or tried to at least. They have their usual mariachi band covering East 17’s “Stay Another Day” but, as I never tire of telling people, there is no mention of anything even vaguely related to xmas in that song. Why do people think its an xmas song? WHY? Ditto “The Power of Love”, unless vampires are a part of Christmas now.

    In other news, I like the Boots ad best so far this year.

    1. Because it was Christmas Number One! And the video had some snowflakes in!

      I almost included the Doritos ad. It’s like they think we’ve bonded sufficiently with their mariachi band to be able to do a Christmas special. We have not. I’d rather have the Friendchips lot back.

      As long as they were on fire.

  6. Chris Rea probably sits at home shouting at the telly when these ads with the fake xmas songs come on. “Whats wrong with Driving Home For Christmas, you bastards?”

    I don’t like the way the Doritos mariachi band are trying to insinuate themselves into our lives either. I bet they don’t even remember the East 17 original, or the time that Brian Harvey ran himself over.

  7. Phil – I’m pretty sure there was a very Christmassy video for The Power of Love, with Jesus Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men and stars.

    1. Yeah I vaguely remember the xmassy video for Power of Love but that’s just cheating I think. You could do the same for Ace of Spades by Motorhead but that doesn’t make it a Christmas song. Stop this fake xmas song madness!

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