UK Christmas ads are underwhelming this year – apart from gorgeous Waitrose

It is clearly Bah Humbug time for me. Can you remember the scene in ‘About a Boy’ where Hugh Grant is playing the chap who didn’t work because his dad had written a Christmas hit that is played every year? Just like Slade. Anyhow he is in a supermarket in November and hears the song over the sound system and sighs as it is not December.

Well last week I was in Ealing and I spotted a house with a Christmas tree fully loaded with sparkly lights. I was so depressed!

Then I had an email from Marks & Spencer the next day suggesting I could view their Christmas TV ad. I struggled to delete but my inner curiosity compelled me to have a quick look that turned in to a few repeats of the X Factor folk singing along to an old song all about the season we are about to be hurled into.

Hmmm. I guess agency RKCR/Y&R (they must shorten this by the way) and the M&S client know what they are doing as both are pretty smart groups. I tried to compare the ad with my nearest M&S in the Kings Road. I’m talking poles apart. The Kings Road branch is not their finest hour as a retailer. Given the location it should be a show outlet but it isn’t; it is dull, dull dull.

I never see anyone buying in the clothes sections for either men or women. The food section is however a good place for locals and there is a free car park.

So I’m comparing the Christmas blockbuster with my local store and thinking the two are not joined up. The TV spot implies a store for young people with a bit of underwear interest and I’m thinking it is so far from what I observe when we pop in for the Sancerre and Gravlax. I don’t understand how a brand can produce a glossy and expensive film expressing how they would like to be seen as rather than how they are seen. The gap is to big a leap to make and I would have thought would lead to disappointment and ultimately bad word of mouth comment. My score 4/10

Some work I was involved with some years ago on retail suggested quite strongly that the experience of the local store was more influential than any other factor such as advertising. This meant that advertising should in many ways underclaim rather than the opposite. At Ogilvy we had the Argos account and the work that ran for some years used the Status Quo track ‘Whatever You Want’.

It was a simple technique to illustrate the range of products available. It was also, by coincidence maybe, during their boom years of growth. Since then they have meandered all over the place and currently are having tough trading times, maybe a coincidence, maybe not,

The Argos advertising was in the top 10 of the AdWatch charts every time it was on air and most importantly it never tried to implie who the target audience was or wasn’t. The work avoided the temptation of showing the customer – it was left to the viewer to decide what they felt or desired.

Then I see their current Christmas special. It is the Smash Martians idea with different aliens. Hmmmm again. Again 4/10.

Let’s move on to John Lewis. Me, I’m a lifelong loyal customer. Love it. Back to the comparison with the Kings Road, Peter Jones is iconic and full of Sloane Rangers buying their home essentials and 42 inch TVs whereas good old M&S down the road feels like a sad person’s shopping experience.

But what about the advertising for Christmas? Most of us have found its recent campaigns through the year baffling so as loyal supporters we are all hoping for a wonderful seasonal uplifting adfest. The Smiths? Well it makes more sense than the X Factor team. Thinking age group here,The Smiths are circa 1984-ish so if you were 16-18 back then today we are looking at early 40s.

Spot on. Married, young kids, doing OK with career and can afford a bit of self indulgence. Good casting, on brand and a feel-good factor.

However, despite the internet hits and so on, I am not convinced. The plot has been around for ever and I was waiting for the killer idea. And I waited and waited. When the boy stands at the door of the parents bedroom I was left hanging in the air. Obvious maybe and a big Aaah Factor for parents of young children but as a John Lewis loyalist I just didn’t get it beyond the switch from expecting presents to giving them. Generic? 8/10 for production/casting/editing; 2/10 for idea and relevance.

I was starting to feel like the grumpy old man until Waitrose blasted through my TV screen. What a feast of colour, ideas, food, anticipation – just a blast of scrummy gorgeousness. Brilliant, from new agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty I assume. 10/10 for production and 10/10 for a refreshing Christmas ad.

Back to the first example I wonder why the M&S marketing team think the X Factor idea is right for them? It is so not their profile, the performers will be forgotten by New Year’s Eve, and it is highly probable it will not be received with empathy by the core customer group.

Trying to make a brand with one age profile relevant to a different age profile is a very hard task. As a friend of mine who has a great deal of marketing wisdom says: “It’s like putting lipstick on a gorilla – it’s still a gorilla”

Bah Humbug and Happy Christmas.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.