Naughty or Nice? Christmas Ads Unwrapped

Xmas Ads Hero

Put the kettle on, grab a blanket and look out your judgement spectacles – it’s Christmas advert season again!

The most wonderful time of the year also happens to be wonderful for those of us in the marketing industry, who wait with bated breath (and Twitter at the ready) to assess this season’s crop of festive commercials from the biggest brands in the country – and this year is no exception!

At the risk of sounding like a bit of a nerd, I’ve always quite enjoyed adverts, especially at Christmas time. Those of us who grew up in the 90s share fond memories of the Coca Cola Christmas truck, bedecked in fairy lights and whispering catchy refrains that somehow made you thirsty without even actually showing the drink. But the Christmas ad isn’t a new phenomenon. The Victorians first advertised Christmas decorations in 1853, and Coke have been hijacking the holiday to sell sodas since the 1950s, famously inventing the modern iteration of Father Christmas in the process (matching your outfit to your beverage is a trend too far for most, but he managed to pull it off).

In the name of research, I watched as many Christmas adverts from this year as I could (the lengths I’ll go to for a good story know no bounds). There were some good efforts, like Costa’s cute cartoon critters and Walkers' hilariously baffling collab with Mariah Carey, but for every clever storyline there was a predictably dull, gift-giving-with-a-forced-smile option. It got me thinking – what really makes the perfect Christmas advert?

The formula seems simple. Lots of red, white and gold, smiling kids, altruistic gift-giving and a smattering of jingle bells and you might think you’ve nailed it. But in reality, there’s a lot more nuance required.

So, based on my own personal opinion and some heated discussion in the Team Sunshine group chat, I’ve rounded up what I think are the best and worst festive ads of the season. Read on to see who was on top of the tree and who was left outside in the snow…

The Old Faithful – John Lewis & Partners, ‘Excitable Edgar’

John Lewis released their first big Christmas campaign in 2007, but it’s since Adam & Eve DDB took the reins in 2009 that they’ve been really setting the bar for festive advertising. From the bear and the hare and Buster the boxer, to the much-memed ‘Man on the Moon’, John Lewis have a back catalogue of Christmas classics, which makes their yearly offering subject to increased scrutiny from excited consumers looking to start the countdown to Christmas.

They’ve been teetering on the edge of trite for quite some time, but this year they brought us ‘Excitable Edgar’, the story of an overly eager little dragon who is shunned by his community for perpetually setting fires whenever something fun is happening. It’s predictably adorable, not quite as product focused as last year’s (casual piano under the tree, anyone?) and features just the right amount of intrigue to get you watching to the end. We collectively agreed that it was one of the company’s more palatable offerings in recent years, though we probably won’t be running out to buy a plush Edgar any time soon (they’re out of stock anyway, obviously).

Christmas spirit rating – 8.5/10

The ‘Less-would've-been-more’ One – Argos, ‘The Book of Dreams’

Team Sunshine were pretty unanimous about this one – good idea, but far too long. I imagine it’s edited for TV but the online version of this ad runs to almost THREE MINUTES! That’s far too long to watch a dad playing drums in an empty kitchen. If we’d been directing, we’d have given more airtime to his daughter, who joins the party about a third of the way in but is infinitely more watchable than her dad. Overall, a missed opportunity, but with good intentions.

Christmas spirit rating – 5/10

The Traditional One – Sainsburys, ‘The Greatest Gift’

This one divided the office a bit. Some of us loved the old-timey, Dickensian setting – an homage to the supermarket’s 150th birthday – while others found it to be a bit cheesy and predictable. Their interpretation of Santa’s origin story is heart-warming, but they take just a little bit too long to reveal the twist. A jolly take on a classic theme, but nothing that’s going to be remembered after the tree comes down.

Christmas spirit rating – 7/10

The Controversial One – Ikea, ‘Silence the Critics’

This year’s Marmite award definitely goes to Ikea. They made waves on social media (and in the Sunshine office) with their first ever Christmas campaign, dreamed up by ad agency heavyweights, Mother, with an original song by underground UK grime artist, D Double E. The soundtrack certainly cuts through the usual glut of Slade and Wizard repeats, and it won the Swedish brand a lot of kudos, but the actual sentiment of the advert itself left a slightly bitter taste in many mouths.

It shows a family being being jeered at by a gang of rapping inanimate objects, who point out everything they need to fix around the house before even thinking of inviting friends over for a mince pie – a crack in the wall, a shabby couch, an embarrassing lampshade etc. The solution to this is, of course, to deck the halls with an Ikea catalogue’s worth of new stuff, in order to have a home that doesn’t repel visitors with its unfortunate flaws. How subtle.

In our foodbank economy, it seems crass to effectively shame people into buying new furniture – especially when the advert’s tagline is ‘silence the critics’, who, in this case, come across more as Ikea themselves than the subject’s inner voice. For me, the intention of the ad is at odds with the execution and, unfortunately, no amount of cool music can cover that up.

Christmas spirit rating – 5/10

The Crowd Pleaser – Aldi, ‘The Amazing Aldi Christmas Show’

Move over, John Lewis, Kevin the Carrot is the new undisputed champion of the Christmas advertising world! Working with McCann UK, Aldi first introduced Kevin in 2016 and audiences have been rooting for him (sorry, I just had to) ever since.

This year’s story brings in a villainous brassica in the form of Russel Sprout and his gang of ‘Leafy Blinders’, who have vowed to take back control of the Christmas table from Kevin and his crew. Naturally, it is the charismatic carrot who prevails and the whole thing culminates in a giant, Christmassy party that would have even the Scroogiest naysayer mulling the wine and decking the halls.

Combining the fuzzy feels of the season with twinkly animation, a plucky protagonist and a clever script replete with family-friendly humour, Aldi have ticked practically all of the Christmas advert boxes. In fact, it’s been named this year’s most effective Christmas ad by Kantar, who analysed feedback from nearly 3000 viewers. That’s a lot of warm hearts!

Is it political? No. Is it breathtakingly original? Not really. Is it beautifully made and wholly entertaining? Abso-jingling-lutely.

Christmas spirit rating – 9/10

The Wildcard – ‘Made for You'

Video production company Anzara went viral in 2018 with their touching short ‘Love is a Gift’ that they made for just £50. Their latest offering is a sweet film depicting a year in the life of a long-distance couple, complete with a touching romantic surprise on Christmas Day. As with their previous festive hit, this one tugs at the heartstrings without being maudlin, proving that you don’t need a big John Lewis budget to create meaningful Christmas content.

Christmas spirit rating – 10/10

So, what makes the perfect Christmas advert? It appears that the answer lies in a delicate balance of sentiment (but not too much), humour (without being cheesy) and sparkle (without being tacky). It should get you excited for the season of goodwill, but not be overtly salesy (showing too many products is a big no-no). A loveable character is usually a win, but partner with a celebrity at your own risk (they can draw the spotlight and make things less relatable). Throw in a great soundtrack and you’ve got yourself a winner. Maybe.

The tricky thing about Christmas ads is, unlike other times of year, they’re aiming at a much broader audience than usual, so there’s a far bigger margin for error. Instead of trying to please one specific demographic, you’re trying to please every demographic, which basically means you can never win. And while the trimmings of the season might be fairly standard (tree, presents, turkey, annoying relatives), sentiments and traditions vary wildly across the country. We are more multicultural, more secular, and more critical of advertising than ever before, so the idea of what makes Christmas special is open to interpretation, which can only mean more and more creative advertising in the years to come.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all this Christmas chat has put me in the mood for a mince pie! Or maybe a carrot…

Did I miss out your favourite ad? Join in the discussion on Instagram!

Emma Fraser Photograph

Emma Fraser