Christmas adverts: capitalist emotional blackmail or festive escapism?

Although spreading Christmas cheer, the ultimate aim of Christmas adverts is to make more money for the company.

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A John Lewis display featuring Monty the Penguin, the character in their 2014 Christmas advert

As a foreign language student currently completing a placement in a German high school, I have recently been asked to speak to some of my younger classes about British Christmas traditions. Aside from Christmas crackers and the Queen’s Speech, one of the most quintessentially British aspects of Christmas that came to my mind was our love of Christmas adverts. The release of yearly Christmas advert by companies like John Lewis, M&S and Sainsbury’s have become anticipated events and the adverts themselves have developed into resembling short films in their length and attempts to create emotional resonance. Why do we love these adverts so much? And why do these companies spend millions of pounds every year on them?

When watching television or a YouTube video, we hate having to sit through the adverts. Christmas adverts, however, have become the unofficial launch of Christmas in the UK and, as a nation, we have taken them to our hearts. Often dubbed ‘The John Lewis Effect’, many big companies spend millions on producing adverts lasting between 90-120 seconds which pull at our heart springs. When watching the adverts, we almost forget that they have been created to try and sell us things, often because they do so in a less direct way than we expect.

The most popular and successful Christmas adverts do not tend to feature their products. The adverts of companies such as John Lewis and M&S do not even make a mention of the company until the final frame of the advert. Instead, the adverts focus on telling a story: this is ‘The John Lewis Effect’ – the adverts aim to build an emotional connection with the viewers. We are drawn into the lives of the characters and we often relate to them and their emotions or reactions. Teary-eyed, we share the adverts on social media and discuss how amazing they are with our friends, thus spreading the word. Without any mention of products however, how do these adverts actually make the company more money?

Animals bouncing on a trampoline, a man on the moon, WW1 soldiers in the trenches… the subjects of Christmas adverts are diverse. The common link is that they all evoke emotion, which is an incredibly powerful tool. Usually, brands have to use limited advert time to promote their latest deals and sales, but the premium Christmas advert is a chance to promote the brand itself. The emotion evoked in the adverts is not only linked to the storyline, but also to the nostalgia of childhood Christmas’. When an advert makes us feel emotional and nostalgic, we automatically feel a connection to the brand, a warm fuzzy feeling as we associate them with Christmas and with a penguin called Monty. This makes us more likely to buy from the brand, not only over the Christmas period, but, hopefully for the company, on a long-term basis. The more powerful the Christmas advert, the long the connection lasts.

Although spreading Christmas cheer, making viewers laugh and cry (and even tackling social and environmental issues -see Iceland’s orangutan advert this year) are all well and good, the ultimate aim of Christmas adverts is to make more money for the company. Christmas and money have almost become synonymous. For many, the religious aspect of Christmas has become negligible and it has simply become the biggest commercial event of the year with companies aiming to capitalise on our festive mood. While products may not feature throughout, the closing frames of the adverts make it clear that they want us to come and spend money.

Sainsbury’s Christmas advert this year features a school play, amusing costumes and some sweet children singing and dancing: all the ingredients for a heart-warming advert. As the advert comes to a close, the message on the screen reads ‘we give all we’ve got for the ones we love’. This is a very lovely message, but in the context of a commercial advert, it is still essentially telling us that we should buy more to show people that we love them. Similarly, the John Lewis advert features Elton John singing ‘Your Song’ before we finally see him being given a piano for Christmas by his parents with the message ‘some gifts are more than just a gift’ – suggesting that one gift can change the course of somebody’s life. No pressure on your gift buying, then! Christmas adverts are, essentially, a form of emotional blackmail, playing on our feelings and the festive warmth and turning these into a way of making more money: the capitalistic Christmas spirit.

Why is it that, understanding the purely commercial aims of these adverts, we continue to indulge in them? It is more than the fact that they are sweet and make us feel Christmassy. Christmas adverts take us back to our childhood and our ideals of Christmas. Spending time with our whole family, the excitement we felt as a child opening our presents and the idealised White Christmas. As adults, Christmas loses some of its magical touch as reality kicks in. Adverts evoke nostalgia and permit escapism, allowing us to relive the happiness and excitement we felt as a child. The emotion of the adverts allows for a Christmas catharsis, often necessary for the various feelings built up around this time of year for adults.

For the pleasures that Christmas adverts permit us, it seems that we are willing to put up with the emotional blackmail and commercial takeover of Christmas. It is important, however, that we remember the true meaning of Christmas, something often shown in these adverts, but subverted.

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