This is what the pandemic has done to Christmas TV adverts

Waitrose & Partners and John Lewis & Partners

Christmas is coming. A chance to spend time with your friends and family in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces, breathing all over each other, shouting, laughing and hugging. But this is Christmas, Covid-19 edition. A chance to eat Christmas dinner via Zoom and, trembling with cold in your back garden, raise a glass of mulled wine with up to five friends. If that’s weird enough, just think of the Christmas adverts.
Ever since John Lewis released its first sentimental Christmas advert in 2009, which featured kids excitedly tearing open presents while a twee cover of Sweet Child O’ Mine played in the background, the British public have been absolutely obsessed with Christmas ads. Over the last decade, every single brand has tried to replicate John Lewis’ winning formula, chasing that perfect Christmas ad in the hopes of extracting tears from consumers’ eyes and cash from consumers’ wallets.

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In any ordinary year, the classic Christmas advert which makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside would be just what the public ordered. But this is no ordinary year. While people would have once happily cried at an advert featuring a school Christmas performance full of cute kids and proud parents, or a street of people coming together to make sure that an elderly resident isn’t alone on Christmas day, we’re still living through a pandemic, with millions of people under strict lockdown.
Schools have scrapped their traditional Christmas performances. Many people will be forced to spend Christmas alone this year. The grim outlook has left retailers scratching their heads trying to answer a tricky question: how do you make a good Covid-19 Christmas advert? Retailers usually spend millions on flashy big budget productions, which are planned and scripted well in advance – some as early as January.
A good Christmas advert isn’t just about the ad. There’s also merchandise to make, a retail experience to plan, copyright negotiations and reams of social media strategy to put in place. Then along came the pandemic. When Covid-19 swept across the UK in March and April, ad agencies were left scrambling to come up with new ideas that were sensitive to both the mood of the nation and the likelihood of widespread lockdown restrictions.
“I’d say in the first month of lockdown everything probably got massively scrutinised, revamped or rethought or re-briefed,” says Hermeti Balarin, executive creative director at advertising agency Mother, which created Ikea’s Christmas advert in 2019. In the aftermath of the initial lockdown, Balarin says that the heads of production and advertising agencies were cautiously speculating about what a relaxation of the restrictions might look like so that they could plan for a script and a shoot that took those rules into account. “I would be surprised if anyone had an idea that would have survived intact to become reality.”

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Sergio Lopez, chief production officer at McCann Worldgroup Europe, which makes Christmas ads for Aldi, says that many companies were planning on making big celebratory Christmas adverts at the start of the year. But as the pandemic raged on they realised that a triumphant Christmas ad would be a terrible idea. “A big anthemic campaign, when people are losing jobs and the future is gloom and doom would be massively tone-deaf,” Lopez says.
In September, John Lewis executive director Pippa Wicks said that its Christmas advert this year would be “Covid-appropriate”. While we don’t know what that means exactly, one thing is for sure: we’re probably not going to see raucous celebrations with hundreds of people hugging one another and wolfing down canapes.
Many of the tropes we have come to expect from Christmas advertising will be thrown out of the window. “Like the joy of the big shop,” says Laurence Green, executive partner at marketing agency MullenLowe London. “That is not joyful this year,” he says. Plus kissing, hugging and close contact Christmas dinners will probably be removed from adverts entirely. But that probably won’t mean a continuation of Zoom-themed adverts that have dominated airwaves for much of the pandemic. “We’ve seen so many Zoom-like campaigns and so much work that makes light of the current situation that most will try not to get dragged into that,” Green explains.
Expect less tear-jerkers ala John Lewis’ 2015 advert of a lonely man on the Moon, and more escapism, hope for the future and a sprinkling of nostalgia. Fantastical worlds untouched by Covid-19 might also be something that brands explore. Animation will also be a big theme, helping brands distance themselves from a relentlessly grim reality. Doing away with live-action adverts also helps production companies get around lockdown restrictions. “Animation got a massive spike at the beginning,” says Balarin. “Every single animation house we know got booked up and I believe that a lot of it was already from Christmas ad campaigns.”

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While many of the Christmas adverts in the last few years have been about community and coming together, this year we aren’t going to be able to do that. Or, if we do, it will be virtually. Lopez says that brands might take a more aspirational look towards the future in which we all could be together again. “Almost in a post-war fashion,” he speculates. From the discussions he has been having with other heads of production, companies have been shooting multiple endings for their adverts just in case Covid-19 restrictions change. Others have been re-editing footage filmed earlier in the year to be more sensitive to the current climate.
Expect Covid-19 Christmas adverts to be far less glitzy than in previous years as well. According to an industry report, advertisers will spend £6.2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020 – £724 million less than last year’s figure. Many advertising budgets have been slashed, especially for those retailers who have not fared so well during the pandemic.
Even though productions this year will be smaller, the public’s strange fascination with Christmas adverts will remain. “The stakes are super high” says Iain Tait, executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, the agency responsible for Sainsbury’s Christmas ads. “There are millions of people sitting by their keyboards just waiting to pounce on the next faux pas.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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