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The Battle of the Christmas Advert

I recently went inside a John Lewis for the first time. It was disappointing to realise it is a perfectly normal department shop. What exactly I expected I’m not sure — something more characterful and alive and less labyrinthine — but like many Brits, my expectations were skewed because of the brand’s reputation as the megalith of the narrative Christmas advert.

Since 2007, John Lewis have been releasing their short-film-esque Christmas adverts, and they have become highly anticipated and are debated passionately each year by the public and critics alike. Who could blame British supermarkets for wanting a piece of the attention? From Waitrose and John Lewis’ collaborative advert in 2019, to Aldi’s mascot Kevin the Carrot, the Christmas TV advert has become an annual competition of creativity for all well-known and nationally respected supermarket chains.

There are some central elements in making a Christmas advert. Firstly, the music — if there is no cheesy cover song playing in the background, or aggressively festive instrumental, how is the viewer supposed to know it is Christmas?

Then the setting — many adverts opt for a domestic background, and a focus on preparing for Christmas. The ‘sad child’ trope is a classic option, too. Lidl took this trope and this year have used it to foreground toy donations, promoting their toy collection campaign. If not domestic in some way, then the visuals must be even more fiercely Christmassy to compensate. Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot falls into this category.

Most importantly, though, there must be a narrative. ‘Lifestyle advertising’ is a familiar concept, where an advert attempts to evoke emotions about a certain way of life, attaching their brand to particular value sets. Supermarket Christmas adverts take this to another level through their use of narratives. M&S’ advert this year involves a group of friends chaotically preparing for the festivities, highlighting as they continue to make a mess everywhere that Christmas is different and personal to every household. The narrative quality is what John Lewis has bestowed on festive advertising, giving a short film quality to television Christmas adverts.

There is always a sense of rivalry whenever the Christmas adverts come out. Depending on the year, supermarkets will battle as to who can best execute a given trope. This year, the use of celebrities within adverts has become a point of competition for several retailers. Asda has Michael Bublé, Waitrose has Graham Norton, and Sainsbury’s even managed to pull Rick Astley out from the vault of timeless figures.

There is also the more obvious economic sense of rivalry. Every supermarket wants to be the brand who attracts the most customers, which is fundamentally what the adverts are for.

Traditionally, supermarkets have been perceived in different categories based on pricing ----- Aldi and Lidl the more affordable shops, M&S and Waitrose the higher end supermarkets, and so forth. But the competition to have the best Christmas advert is a level playing field. Even non-supermarkets are pitching in with their own adverts, like Deliveroo, indicating the diversification of the food industry. Is it a bit much to suggest that the field of Christmas advertising is bringing equality to supermarkets? Probably. But the adverts do potentially allow supermarkets to reach beyond their current customer base. Who knows who might become a regular Aldi customer after shopping for Kevin the Carrot merch?

It is important to remember that supermarkets are corporations, and the food industry is responsible for approximately a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is therefore crucial that we hold supermarkets to account for their actions, as a central part of this industry. However, it is possible to recognise that supermarkets are capable of mass destruction whilst enjoying the fun Christmas adverts they produce. In a world where exploitation and disaster occur, it is important to cherish small instances of joy — maybe television Christmas adverts are one of these.

Illustration by Holly Ward

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