Epic TV ads that sell us Christmas cheer and festive fun
Seasonal singles are past it. Now it's the TV commercials that get us talking over the festive season. John Meagher on the big brands waging war on the small screen
In the weeks leading up to the release of its Christmas TV ad, the marketing department of the John Lewis department store chain went into overdrive.
First, a selection of journalists were brought to a press screening where they could view the commercial - which features a young boy and a lonely penguin called Monty. Then, 'trailers' for the mini film were released virally. Later, it was reported that ITV and Channel 4 were battling to see which would be the first to show the ad.
It was finally screened during the commercial break of the latter's irreverent Gogglebox series.
For several years now, John Lewis has become synonymous with lavish Christmas ads that not only are people happy to watch over and over, but to talk about too. There's more than a whiff of event television about these two-minute ads. Even the music used - a Smiths cover one year, Lily Allen reinterpreting Keane the next - has enjoyed considerable chart success. (This year's offering features upcoming singer-songwriter Tom Odell taking on John Lennon's 'Real Love', but it will do well to make an impact in the same year as the fourth coming of Band Aid).
And those marketeers must have been pleased to learn that the ad was viewed more than four million times in its first 24 hours on YouTube and shared more than 200,000 times on Facebook and Twitter within the same time span. Furthermore, they are likely to have been even more heartened by the Brandwatch findings that more than 14,500 people mentioned on social media that the ad had made them cry.
But if the retailer thought it was going to deliver the acclaimed ad of Christmas 2014, they hadn't banked on Sainsbury's delivering a hammer-blow. Screened for the first time during an entire ad break for Coronation Street last week, the supermarket giant's epic commercial re-tells one of the most heartening true stories of the first world war. One hundred years ago, on Christmas Day 1914, Allied and German soldiers put down their guns, left their trenches and played a game of football in No Man's Land, and in Sainsbury's handsomely shot version, a British soldier discreetly places a bar of chocolate in the coat pocket of a German counterpart which his new friend only finds once he has returned to his trench. "Christmas is for sharing" reads the cheery strap-line at the end.
Although a small number complained about the use of the one of the bloodiest wars in history to sell the Sainsbury's brand, the general consensus was that the retailer had delivered a milestone commercial that would be talked about for years to come. And, for its part, Sainsbury's pointed to a 20-year association with the Royal British Legion and the fact that it would be donating every penny made through the sale of the retro-looking chocolate bar featured in the ad to the Legion.
It's a curious phenomenon that, in an age when many of us pause live television with the sole purpose of fast-forwarding through the commercials, there is such interest in big budget Yuletide ads. But one of Ireland's leading ad men, Mal Stevenson, believes the rules go out the window at this time of year. "Viewers are willing to cut advertisers a bit of slack," he says. "They're willing to watch ads that are nostalgic and, if you're working in the creative side of advertising, you have a licence to be sentimental that just wouldn't be tolerated at other times of the year."
Stevenson, the creative director of the Irish International BBDO agency, knows more than most about Christmas TV ads. It was he who oversaw one of the most successful ever made for domestic market - the sumptuous Guinness ad featuring the memorable strap-line of "Even at the home of the black stuff, they dream of a white one".
Shown for the first time in December 2004, it has been broadcast every year since then in the six weeks leading to Christmas. "In the ephemeral world of advertising, it is very rare that a campaign gets such a long run," he says. "It was supposed to run for two years or so, but it really resonated with viewers, so it's stayed.
"The client [Diageo] had noticed that big American drinks companies had Christmas ads and wondered why there wasn't an Irish one. We got the brief that October and got it made quickly. What we wanted to achieve with it, and what I think all good Christmas advertising aspires to, is to be evocative and emotional. Trying to give the viewer that lump in the throat moment should be a guiding principle and that can be done through imagery and music. I can't stress enough, how important music is for cranking up the emotion."
Those who doubt Stevenson's assertion might consider the evocative composition played on Budweiser's long-running festive ads featuring Clydesdale horses. First shown in 1988, it's an ad that has become so synonymous with the holiday season that it inspired a Facebook page called 'It's Not Christmas Until the Budweiser Ad Is On TV'.
This year's batch of evocative Christmas ads includes the Does Anything Beat A Bike? campaign from the UK and Ireland-based retailer, Halfords, and was made in Britain by Irish filmmaker, Aoife McArdle.
"I wanted to make a Christmas ad that didn't feel like other Christmas ads," she says. "For many of us, getting a bike was the best Christmas present we ever received as children and I wanted to give a sense of the magic of that."
The charming commercial sees a disparate group of pre-teens taking their bikes out for a Christmas morning spin where they encounter several other youngsters enjoying their new bikes too. It's a simple concept, and comes close to delivering that lump in the throat moment Mal Stevenson speaks of.
"We made it back in September," McArdle says, "but wanted to give that festive feel so you need a sense of snowfall and ice on the ground. The viewer has come to expect it. I wanted this ad to appeal to children and also to their parents, because, unlike so many gifts that children want today, everybody can relate to the joy of a bike."
McArdle is currently at work on her first feature film and has just finished making a pop video for Bryan Ferry. She does not feel that her ad work - which also includes a striking one for Electric Ireland's sponsorship for the Minor Football and Hurling Championships - compromises her artistic merits as a filmmaker and points out that Christmas commercials, in particular, are getting ever more cinematic and ambitious.
And it's not just John Lewis and Sainsbury's that spent serious money on their ads (a rumoured €1.2 million each - with a further €7m to €8m respectively earmarked for advertising spend) - but retailers like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams have also dug deep to get noticed this Christmas.
M&S has dispensed with the celebrity-based ads they favoured over the past decade and focused instead on the merry capers of a pair of fairies to the strains of Julie Christie singing 'Fly Me to the Moon'.
Debenhams, meanwhile, has opted for an army of pyjama-clad children who go 'shopping' in the store for themselves and their parents. Paul McCartney's 'We All Stand Together' - popularly known as 'The Frog Chorus' - provides the playful sonic backdrop.
Intriguingly, the ex-Beatle has been mentioned by many in relation to Sainsbury's World War I ad. No sooner had the commercial screened than McCartney devotees were pointing out that the scenes bore more than a passing resemblance to the video for his much derided 1983 anti-war song, 'Pipes of Peace'. But as the Daily Telegraph's reviewer acidly put it, "At least, thank goodness, they didn't use [the song] to soundtrack the ad."
John Lewis, meanwhile, will be hoping that Monty the Penguin will raise spirits in the same way that its bear and hare campaign did last year. And the department store is happy to sell you a replica of the lovelorn bird too: yours for £95.
Holidays are coming...
It's the time of year when ad agencies get to indulge their sentimental sides and brands pay through the nose for the primetime slots. John Lewis and Sainsbury's may have delivered a pair of big-hitters this year, but will they take their place in the pantheon of the most evocative Christmas commercials ever made?
For many, it's Coca Cola who nailed the Christmas ad better than anyone - not surprisingly, perhaps, when one considers that it was the cola behemoth who created the Santa Claus 'look' that is known to all of us today. Its 'Holidays are Coming' jingle has been refreshed frequently over the decades, but it still manages to evoke Christmas in a way few brands can manage without getting too corny.
Another giant of corporate America, Budweiser, has also managed this feat with its long-running ad built around a stirring piece of music specially commissioned by the company in 1970 and known as 'Here Comes the King'.
One-off Christmas ads are fondly remembered too, not least a 1990 classic from Kellogg's which featured a young girl's magical encounter with a Santa munching on Corn Flakes, while Penney's 1996 effort, was loved for its sweet tale of an animated boy awaiting Santa's arrival on Christmas Eve.
The Irish market has been well-served by Christmas ads. Guinness's 'Dream of a White One' - inspired apparently by the final pages of James Joyce's The Dead - has been much-loved since it made its debut 10 years ago, while Vodafone struck gold a few years ago with an ad filmed on Grafton Street made-over as a winter wonderland.
And although not a Christmas ad per se, Irish viewers still have a great grá for the 'Coming Home' advert that ESB ran in the late 80s and early 90s. Featuring a young Alan Hughes - now a fixture on TV3 - the commercial centred on a young emigrant returning to his Irish family (and adoring mammy) at Christmastime.
It resonated with viewers then because it tapped into the heartbreak of emigration that was common in the Ireland of the time and it's remembered today because emigration remains part of the Irish experience.