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Are Christmas ads a waste of money?

Are you sick of seeing the Christmas ads yet? Well, brace yourself, there is still a long way to go before they are off our screens. But are brands wasting their money with these expensive TV campaigns? Absolutely not, says James Taylor, consultant at PR agency Roaring Mouse, because they are PR gold: “The PR coup of the Christmas adverts is that the retailers have succeeded in making them huge stories in their own right, competitive events people look forward to that attract significant attention across traditional, online and social media.

“It isn't simply the 30 seconds or so of paid-for TV time they are using to capture our attention. Yes, the adverts tend to be emotional short stories playing to powerful feelings of family, belonging and nostalgia, but they are just part of the story.”

Music to our ears

One reason the ads are so effective is because of their use of music says Taylor: “The retailers have taken a lead from the movies, so just as you still think of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood when you hear Bryan Adams, John Lewis will be somewhere in your consciousness every time you hear Golden Slumbers for years to come. If it gets close to Christmas number one, the value of earned media for John Lewis – even without a name-check itself – will be worth much more than what it has actually paid for.”

PR is more valuable than TV alone

But for the ads to be a real success story they must be part of a cohesive campaign says James Herring, managing partner at PR firm Taylor Herring: “The run up to Christmas is the UK’s ad industries’ equivalent of the Superbowl. It’s the only time of year when TV commercials are a guaranteed, ‘of interest’ news story. However that’s where the similarities end. The Superbowl is a one-day event and Britain’s countdown to Christmas is a seven-week marketing marathon. So it’s not enough to be launching a TV commercial to huge media fanfare in the first week of November and then having nothing left to say for the next seven weeks.

“A phased PR campaign that will build in the run up to Christmas Eve is far more valuable than a viral flash-in-the-pan that burns bright and quickly fades. CMOs need PR experts at the table with their ad team to bake this in from the outset. Solid editorial hooks are what’s needed to excite journalists and rise above the competition. There’s way too much reliance on the ‘hero video’ and not enough thought going into the editorial and a social touch points that keep retailers front of mind throughout the period.”

How Christmas campaigns score with the public

Richard Sunley, UK analyst at social media analysts Talkwalker, says the British public seems to be as engaged with Christmas ads as ever: “For the agencies involved, it's war, but to the viewer, they’re as much a part of Christmas as cake, carols and cards. John Lewis's Moz the Monster scored an overwhelmingly positive sentiment of 78% across social media, and not just across the UK. YouTube gave it global prominence, with 130,000 views shortly after it went live. Views have now risen to over 8 million, though with four weeks to go we’re still short of the high watermark of 29 million set by its Man on the Moon campaign two years ago. Almost twice as many women engaged with the ad as men and the most frequently used adjectives were 'good', 'love' and 'cute'.  Across the wider UK media, ‘moving’, ‘emotional’ and ‘heart wrenching’ were frequently used monikers.”

Laura Fearnall, founder of  communications agency The Source, describes how Westjet ran a very successful campaign: “As an agency, our Christmas research starts early, whether it’s putting together a full-blown Christmas event or coming up with creative, appealing and effective social media campaigns. During the research, one campaign that was placed under my nose was from American airline, Westjet. Setting up an extremely clever video link to Santa, passengers were asked what they wanted for Christmas before they boarded their plane. They then arrived at their destination, stunned by the vision of their requested Christmas gifts passing before them on the conveyor belt.

This exceptional ‘Christmas Miracle’ PR campaign not only got the public’s attention, it raised the profile of the airline worldwide. Through the use of strong video content, it resulted almost 50 million YouTube views and I imagine, an extensive amount of additional coverage. Most importantly, it pulled on the heart strings of their customers, creating a lifetime of loyalty.”

The moral of the story

In terms of what makes for a great seasonal ad, David Ingram, managing director at agency Bring Digital, says there has to be a strong moral focus: 'The public are more aware than ever of the commercialisation and over-consumption of Christmas, so brands have to tread a careful line when producing large-scale TV ads during this period. This is why the most successful ads will often have a moral-based story that reminds us of the magic and kindness of Christmas, often supporting a charity in the process. In my opinion there is still room for this type of escapism at Christmas, and for the brand it does it's job of getting people talking. However, it can't just be telling a nice story or be too far-fetched. I think the best adverts clearly relate back to the brand and its products and don't stray too far into the extremely cheesy, tear-jerking, or guilt-inducing territory”.

Why I love these ads

Even though Clark Turner, communications officer at Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, can’t get to a John Lewis, he is still a fan of its advert: “There’s been much buzz about John Lewis’s Christmas 2018 offering in the office this week. “Did you see? What’s it all mean?” No doubt there have been many other watercooler conversations along the same lines this week in offices up and down the country. But in Belfast, we’re not all about to dash down to Britain’s stalwart of homeware and fabric (oh, how I miss haberdashery!). You see, there’s no John Lewis in Northern Ireland. But that doesn’t stop us being interested in the Christmas ad fayre.

“Christmas is the one time of year when advertising gets exciting. It’s when the big brands roll out the big guns in a bid to encourage big spend. Time is precious and lord knows most men hate shopping. But create a little Christmas fuzziness sentiment and for most blokes it’s job done when considering where to get the gifts in at the last minute, never mind what those goodies might actually be. So us men salute the brands that make our lives that little bit easier. Let’s celebrate Christmas ad magic and some half-decent creative. It sure beats the reality, the prospect of unwrapping yet another Lynx gift set on Christmas Day.”

We asked other PROs for their critical view of this year’s ads, and asked them to pick their favourites.

What’s your favourite ad this year?

John Lewis steals the show according to Steph Smith. freelance PR consultant: "In my opinion this year’s offering delivers in spades. The central character is a very charming little boy and I don’t think it comes across as ‘glossy’, even given the special effects used for Moz the Monster. ‘Cute’ always works at Christmas time, as does ‘funny’ and the Aldi Carrots ad raised a hearty burst of laughter on first viewing in our house.

“I think the best Christmas ads feature the quirks of British families at their core.  A great soundtrack helps but as long as there’s a sprinkling of ‘cute’ and ‘funny’ thrown in then I think that looking forward to entertaining Christmas ads, and sharing them with friends, will continue to be one of our seasonal traditions."

M&S’s ad works for Lise Colyer, head of corp comms agency What's Your Story? “the Paddington M&S tie-in, with the NSPCC’s Childline, has really warmed my heart. The Christmas ad delivers an extension of those unifying values espoused in the film. Values which, I feel, we are all more than ready to welcome into our homes, via the big and small screen.

“Sure M&S is trying to sell us stuff. But I like the approach; the books, the in-store events, the cuddly toys, and the highly successful social media engagement. I like any fully-integrated campaign that truly walks its own talk.

“The choice by M&S was astute. The Paddington films are very proudly British, representing what’s best about us. Paddington 2 has warmed the most curmudgeonly critics’ hearts. And it tells a story we can all feel proud of, about an outsider being welcomed in and finding his place amongst us.”

Aldi’s and M&S’s ads are the best in the view of Simon Turton, owner of agency Opera PR: “Having now seen the Christmas adverts from John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Aldi and Morrison’s the only two that I thought were not trying too hard, and were actually enjoyable to watch, were those from M&S and Aldi.

“Not everyone will like M&S cross-selling Paddington 2, but I was genuinely very amused by the advert. Paddington’s naivety was heart-warming – as were the references to needing more marmalade – and for me it did get over the idea that Christmas (on a secular level) is about sharing gifts with family and friends.

“Aldi’s advert, featuring Kevin the Carrot, was also amusing and heart-warming; it was not patronising and didn’t try too hard to promote Aldi’s range of Christmas fare – clearly featured on the extensive table on which the advert was mainly set. The advert, which cleverly referenced the Polar Express, ends with Kevin and girlfriend Carrot heading off on a train to see if Santa exists”.

Just like Father Christmas, you might not believe in Christmas ads, but it is probably churlish to admit it...

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