Christmas ads 2023 – why retail is going for ‘big dumb festive fun’

As another Christmas approaches – and yes, it’s another one where we’re still knee-deep in the ongoing cost-of-living crisis – it’s as important as ever that retailers strike the right note in their annual festive campaigns.

Hailed by all as the ‘Golden Quarter’, Christmas is the most important time of year for retail, and hitting the right note for the festive ad campaign is as important as ever in securing big sales for the key selling period, as well as setting the brand on the right foot for the year ahead.

The annual festive bun fight to be named the consumers’ favourite has seen retailer’s Christmas adverts become victims of their own success, with the annual desire to outdo one another snowballing into a true cultural phenomenon.

Last year’s Christmas ads from top retailers were generally well-received – one particular standout was John Lewis’ heart-warming ‘The Beginner’, which left not a dry eye in the room. But did consumers really want a tear-jerker when many of their own lives were perhaps less-than-rosy?

Unsurprisingly, it was other, more cheerful and uplifting retailer’s ads that nabbed top spots among System 1’s Top 10 list due to their feel-good nature. These included the festive-feel goods, Asda’s ‘Have your Elf a Merry Christmas’, Aldi’s ‘Kevin the Carrot’ and Taika Waititi-directed magical Amazon ad focusing on Joy.

Christmas 2023: What we know so far

So, what will retailers do this year to connect as successfully with consumers as they did last year – while still keeping their adverts fresh, new and different?

“Numerous headlines over the past year have declared purpose-led advertising as ‘oversaturated’, and shown how effective content has showcased the power humour has to make connections”, says Kite Factory strategy director, Rik Moore.

“Feelgood was at the forefront of last year’s ads, and I expect that to continue for 2023. We are all overdue a smile and a chuckle – some big dumb festive fun!”

Trouble Maker chief strategy officer, Jonathan Fraser, put it even more simply, saying that: “Humour is a hugely powerful tool to drive talkability”, pointing out that comedy is a trend that retailers are “exploring once again”.

It’s still early days for this year’s ads, but John Lewis’s recent announcement of the French collective Megaforce raised eyebrows, with the group’s past portfolio suggesting this year’s ad may mark a change from its usual ‘tearjerker’ – (or as Fraser puts it, the annual “if they’re crying, they’re buying” fest).

Elsewhere, comedy director Taika Waititi has been enlisted for Asda’s festive ad featuring Michael Bublé, while Sainsbury’s has enlisted 80s pop star Rick Astley for its 2023 campaign. Both promise to offer a healthy dose of humour alongside the star power offered by the pop legends.

Wavemaker global head of creative excellence Nic McCarthy believes that – if the Cannes Lions creative effectiveness report is an indicator of what’s coming our way – then it’s set to be “a jolly, LOL-y Christmas”, but – as Starcom UK chief strategy officer, Dan Plant, pointed out – the feel-good factor needn’t be only found in humour.

“If I had to identify a theme for this year’s Christmas ads based on the hints so far, I’d say that it seems to be the power of a big celebrity name over the actual story that is being told,” she said, cautioning retailers not to get lost in the pursuit of wanting to “stand out”.

“You want people to be saying ‘I’m going to go to retailer X because their version of Christmas is what I want for my family’ as opposed to “’That Rick Astley ad was hilarious – who was it for again?'”

So, is comedy in this Christmas? The predictions

With many pointing out the cost-of-living crisis’ effect on consumers, M&C Saatchi London chief strategy officer Sophie Lewis said this year’s financial challenges meant it was “still horrible out there”.

“What I want to see from the John Lewis’s and the Boots of the world is that it’s the thought that counts,” she added, suggesting that some light-hearted sentimentality and “fun and entertainment” could be on the menu instead.

Lucky Generals strategy director, Tom Patterson, has similar thoughts, describing this year’s adverts as an opportunity to send a “shot of light in the darkness”.

“It’s a moment to escape into a bubble full of goodwill and generosity, joy and jokes, regardless of what’s happening in the real world. When it’s cold and humbug outside, let’s warm ourselves up with a bit of laughter,” he added.

AMV BBDO strategy partner Joe Smith acknowledged that brands might be tempted to take a sombre tone due to the ongoing financial crisis, but believes consumers want to be entertained and distracted from their everyday lives rather than reminded of their challenges.

“People don’t typically want brands to hold a mirror up to this reality. If they invite us into their homes for 30 seconds, the least we can do is entertain them,” he said.

Highlighting that Christmas has always been about escapism and the need for humour and cheer is TBWA/London’s Jess Smith, who sees advertising as an opportunity for brands to connect with their audience.

“Christmas is a chance for brands to deliver empathy and connection, nothing says I know you and I see you better than comedy. So, retailers will be aiming to avoid addressing the hardships facing consumers this year, in fear of just reinforcing what everyone is worrying about.”

“Of course, the cost-of-living crisis and financial woes will be on the minds of holiday shoppers this year,” agrees JOAN managing director, Tom Ghiden, “But Christmas is a season for love and joy. Marketers shouldn’t fixate on the hard times; this isn’t what people will want to see”.

“Instead, they should focus on celebrating the happiness of the festive season. The proof in this year’s Christmas pudding will be determined not by who can create the most tear-jerking advertisement, but by who can generate the most laughter,” he added.

But just how funny should retailers go?

Of course, a degree of caution must be struck with those looking to lean into comedy, as many consumer may feel they have little, if anything, to laugh about at all. Many retailers and agencies might shy away from attempting to get that balance right – instead settling for a different, more guaranteed version of ‘feel good’.

As Tribal Worldwide creative director, Dave Sullivan, said, “jumping on the humour bandwagon comes with caution”.

“‘Is comedy ‘in’ this Christmas? Yes, absolutely. But a subtle, sensitive hand is required to get it right. Humour has always been and always will be the medicine to see us through harder times,” he said.

We are bought back to the importance of getting the tone just right by Pangolin PR associate director, Chloe Amsden, who warns, “Naturally, striking a balance is essential. Marketers need to approach Christmas advertising with care, ensuring humour is interwoven with meaningful messaging while being mindful of the current economic climate.”

Sceptical of whether retailers are brave enough to be really funny is Dark Horses chief creative officer Steve Howell, who simply asked: “How funny can the big retail clients really get? Usually with big money and big expectations, clients can remain firmly within their comfort zone, which can lead to the advertising equivalent of a pair of socks for Christmas.”

Collective World creative, Zack Gardener agrees. “Tearjerkers may feel like the norm, but comedy and Christmas go together like pigs and blankets. If you’re going to do comedy – make sure it’s actually, well, funny.”

So maybe we shouldn’t expect belly laughs and thigh-slapping moments this year – it’s more likely to be smiles, chuckles and sweet moments. After all, life is bleak enough without a major retailer dramatising life’s troubles into a 30-second spot.

Or, as tms creative Mark Kelly more succinctly puts it: “it’s about time Christmas ads caught up and started taking the piss again.”

AgenciesBrandsCreative and CampaignsFeaturesMarketing StrategyPeople

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Alexander Mullen
    October 11, 2023 10:00 am

    Who are these people? – The ones that boast about knowing everything and anything when it comes to advertising, particularly Radio Advertising? – Oh yes, these are the BIG agencies (85% confusion, 15% commission) straight out of university.

    I’ve done the whole job lot in Radio Advertising for over 30 years, and in today’s ‘climate’, the very last thing the listener wants to hear…. IS HUMOUR/COMEDY!

    Can you imagine being told the same joke every day, TEN TIMES a day in some circumstances. Listeners could quickly ‘tune out’.

    NO…. I’ll tell you what the listeners want, more than ever, ever before… IS A BARGAIN and REAL VALUE FOR MONEY!

    So if the ‘Big Boys’ became less greedy and lowered the cost of things… AND TELL PEOPLE! – THAT’S the way to a successful campaign!

    It might be all well and good for the ‘National’ advertisers, but no-one seems to consider the ‘Local’ advertisers, on LOCAL RADIO.


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