Saturday 15 November 2014

How Christmas adverts became awful

Have we had enough of sentiment in the name of commerce? The battle over supermarket adverts has got to the point where it actively bothers me.

This year, the two worst offenders have been the John Lewis advert (following the previous John Lewis adverts in corny sentimentality, this time telling the heartwarming story of a small boy helping a penguin get his fuck on) and the Sainsbury's advert (where we find that the many ten million soldiers who died in World War I didn't die in vain after all, but actually died to give Sainsbury's a quick boost in their December profits).

When did supermarkets go from advertising the things that they sell for Christmas to trying to make sure that they define Christmas? It's clear why they'd want to do it - this ties into big, big bucks. Get people to identify their Christmas shopping with your brand, and you've got a final financial quarter that makes a major difference. It's worth millions and millions.

Looking at the John Lewis adverts with this in mind, you can see how they've taken the elements that have worked best in previous ads, and used them to manipulate you with the accuracy of a surgeon prodding your brain with a scalpel to make your face twitch.

Let's take a quick, year-by-year look at them and see how we've ended up at the point of what I like to call 'this fucking advert'.

Firstly, it shows the range of what they're selling, with a Christmas image being projected using as shadows of the pile of presents - it's all very stark, and Apple-like. The following year, they bring in the first of their cover tunes "With love, from me to you". We also  get the first plushie that they sell - a small mouse. Not to mention the first child. It finishes with a baby, looking at the camera, and showing a present that the child is looking at.

Obviously, the child aspect worked, because the next year, we got a sickening cover of 'Sweet Child of Mine' with children all over it, and the next year, it was 'Your Song'. Throughout all of them were a range of items being shown, so it was still somewhat about the catalogue.

2011 brought us the child waiting for Christmas. This was the first really big one for them, because it focused on a specific child and told a story. We were all expecting the kid to be waiting for his presents, but he was actually waiting to give presents to his family (although I maintain that the mystery box had his sister's head in it, much like Seven. John Lewis adverts share a surprising amount in common with horror trailers, something that has finally been pointed out with the wonderful Babadook mash-up trailer).

The story aspect downplayed the range and went instead with a simple story. It was their first proper mini-movie. And the first point where it really became a tradition.

The following year, we got a terrifying snowman on a trek to buy some fashionable winter items for his snow-girlfriend while a child watched. Although he may have actually been trying to kill her by making her warmer (I told you, they're all secretly horror stories). There was less range shown, but it was still somewhat about the products.

Just buy Private Eye already
The less said about their idiotic Hare and Bear advert, the better, except to point out that it showed a complete lack of understanding of hibernation and the bear probably killed everyone (as shown by Private Eye's fantastic cover). It also showed a alarm clock that somehow could be set to a specific day as well as time, but then, it had moved well into the realm of fantasy by this point.

But there's a more important point here. Which has been shown with this year's advert.

This year, we get the complete package. A story that focuses on a young boy and an imaginary penguin (which is actually a stuffed toy). But the penguin is lonely, and wants another penguin to love. The kid buys another penguin for the penguin and presumably spent most of Christmas night banging them together, what with his limited understanding of how penguins procreate. I have to admit, I'm not entirely sure how penguins bang either, and have no desire to have that on my Google search history. Incidentally, since the kid's dad isn't in the advert, I'm entirely fine with the suggestion that the penguin toy is possessed by the ghost of the kid's dead dad.

But why is this important?

Because, similarly to the bear and hare, the penguin (Monty) has his own product range. You can buy plushies of Monty, t-shirts with Monty on, ties with Monty on, cushion covers with Monty on, duvet covers with Monty on. None of them are particularly cheap either.

As of last year, John Lewis moved from the advert being about their catalogue to being about a specific range of products. This is how successful they are. The main Monty items are already sold out, six weeks before Christmas. And in the reviews, someone is talking about how happy they are that they managed to get one, because they weren't able to buy their child the bear and the hare the previous year.

It's nakedly self-serving. It's pushing your emotional buttons in order to sell you a single, along with some plushie toys and duvet covers. They even went so far, this year, as to have the kid being given the plushie this year. It isn't even subtle.

It's part of a new trend, which I think Starbucks kicked off with their red cups. Corporate Christmas traditions. At least the red cups thing has finally backfired as just about every other coffee chain have realised that Starbucks don't own the colour red and have started doing the same thing at Christmas. Which means it's backfired a bit, which I'm delighted about.

But this is what adverts do. Cheaply and manipulatively try to take parts of Christmas and brand them.

And it works. We lap it up. The John Lewis advert has been an enormous hit, and what they're out to sell has sold out in the thousands.

But it's been beaten by the Sainsbury's advert, which retells the Christmas truce. This, for me, has crossed the line, and I think we need to talk about what's acceptable to use when you're manipulating people's emotions in the name of profit.

How did this come up in the first place? How did this idea first get floated and approved? I imagine the conversation in their PR team went a little like this:

"John, we need to come up with something to get more customers in the store, ever since we accidentally told everyone that we were trying to squeeze an extra fifty pence out of them."

"It's a tough one. Coming up with sentimental Christmas stuff isn't easy."

"Too true. I've heard that John Lewis are going with a lonely, blue-balled imaginary penguin."

"They must be completely out of ideas."

"I totally agree."

"If only we could use something truly touching."

"You mean like the Christmas truce in the first world war?"

"Yeah, something like that. A moment of humanity in the middle of a senseless war that caused so many millions of deaths. A moment that shows how we're all the same, even at our worst moments."

"So how do we take something like that and use it to make people spend money in our shop?"

"Steve, you don't think that could be a bit unpleasant, do you?"

"You're right. We'll leave out the death bit. Chuck in a robin. And give the Royal Legion a call so we can make out we're doing it out of Christmas spirit."

"Happy December Profits, John!"

I may be abridging it slightly, but I honestly think the conversation must have been at least a bit like that. Somewhere, some people around a table decided that the WWI Christmas truce was an appropriate point in history to exploit for an advert and they made sure there was a charity angle in there in case they were criticised. This will have been proposed, approved, written, tweaked, designed, tweaked, retweaked and finally given the green light to be filmed.

Fine, the profits from the chocolate bar go to the Royal Legion. That's a good thing. But let's not pretend it's being done purely out of charitable impulse. It's about increasing footfall. It's about getting people into the shop and getting them to buy more things than that single item.

That's why the advert exists. That's the point of it. That's the point of the chocolate bar.

This hasn't been done out of any cosy Christmas feelings. This has been done to exploit cosy Christmas feelings. Personally, I love Christmas, even as an atheist. I tend to go to Ireland and spend time with my family. I'm even into corny sentimentality - you're looking at one of the few people who liked the remake of Christmas on 34th Street. But I'm not into serious attempts to get me into your fucking shop.

What John Lewis have started with their mini Christmas movies is an attempt to corporatise a season. And it's become competitive. Everyone will, next year, be looking to see what Sainsbury's do, and if you think that all the other brands haven't noticed the press that John Lewis and Sainsbury's have had over these two mini-movies, then you'll be surprised just how many go for the emotion button next year, and what they're willing to do in order to achieve it.

If we're okay with an incident in the middle of the deaths of millions being used to get us into shops, then what are we not okay with?