When you write advertising for a living, you spend days focusing on the emotions you’re wishing to evoke in the people you’re trying to reach. What do you want people to feel, as a gateway to what you want them to do?
So what if all you want people to do is get a warm, fuzzy feeling around Christmas time?
The holidays offer rare opportunities for copywriters and designers and producers to indulge their better angels. Especially in Britain, where Christmas is their Super Bowl—
—from an advertising standpoint, that is. The Brits make Big Advertising around the holidays, pulling out all the tinsel and taking full advantage of the emotions of the season: joy, wonder, disappointment, surprise, empathy, peace. Here are some of my favourites.
John Lewis: “Monty the Penguin”
The British department store John Lewis is the king of Christmas advertising; their holiday spots are anticipated nearly as breathlessly as new Star Wars movies*. Their new spot is pretty good, but doesn’t hold a holly-scented candle to last year’s, starring a little boy and his pet penguin and featuring a John Lennon song performed by Tom Odell. If you don’t have a tear in your eye at the end of this one, you’re a replicant.
John Lewis: “The long wait”
Really, I could fill this column with John Lewis spots. This, from 2011, is my second-favorite one. It takes the oh-so-familiar trope of the kid who can’t wait for Christmas and does with it something new and unexpected and utterly charming. And it features a beautiful song by The Smiths as covered by Slow Moving Millie. It’s high up on the short list of Spots I Wish I’d Written.
Sainsbury’s: “mog’s christmas calamity”
This supermarket chain worked with children’s book author Judith Kerr and her beloved cat character Mog to create this hilarious, scary, heartwarming, delightful spot. Mog’s calamity is ‘way over the top—about as believable as the catastrophes that befall the characters in Season 2 of Fargo, and just as entertaining. But anyone who’s ever owned a cat will recognize Mog. And anyone with a pulse will recognize the spirit of lovingkindness that animates this advert.
sainsbury’s: “christmas is for sharing”
Sainsbury’s 2014 spot was pretty special, too. Not everyone thought the commercial was in good taste, but it’s hard to deny its power. It was inspired by the well-known story of a spontaneous Christmas Day truce on the Western Front, and the sight of the Brits and Germans jarred by distant gunfire into marching back to their foxholes is devastating. The warm ending may seem trivial to you in the face of reality of war. Then again, maybe the path to a better world lies in actually humanizing our enemies—something Donald J. Trump might do well to learn.
yellow pages: “Mistletoe”
We Honeywells, we recycle our Yellow Pages the day we get them. Clearly, we haven’t explored all of their potential uses.
This is so dark—so lovely and mysterious and dark and funny and makes me wish I could have an IRN-BRU right now just to show them how much I admire their good taste.
Let’s end with a little pure capitalistic seasonal joy, eh? Let’s crank up Fleur East‘s “Sax” and remind people that Christmas isn’t just about sharing and shedding tears: It’s also about dancing our asses off and draping fairy lights over anything that stands still (and most things that move). Note the appearance of “Snowman” as a sign of the season. What does this have to do with buying groceries? Nothing. And everything.
You don’t get to write this kind of stuff every day. So thank goodness for British Christmas advertising—and the advertisers who greenlight it. Celebrating the holidays by spending ridiculous amounts of money on things nobody really needs—but make them happy, anyway—seems just about right.