Christmas Adverts 2018: The Curious Case of Elton John

Here is our rundown of this year’s TV Christmas adverts, including an in depth look at John Lewis’s hotly anticipated festive campaign.

I’m not one for celebrating Christmas any earlier than necessary, but since we’ve now entered into December, it seems acceptable to discuss the outcome of the Christmas adverts of 2018, released a few weeks ago.

This year’s Christmas Ad seasons appears to be markedly lacklustre compared to previous years. We have seen Holly Willoughby shamelessly plug some ‘must-have’ jumpers, Elton John regenerate, Benjamin Button style, to the moment where it all started, and Kevin the Carrot return to our screens for a face-off with Pascal the Parsnip.

Focus on product over brand

A lot of brands appear to have abandoned the usual heart-warming epics in favour of more product-focussed ads. It’s no secret that 2018 has been an especially tough year for many retailers, particularly for high street brands, which has resulted in a wide spread cut back this year on ad spend and a much stronger focus on products and commercial promotions.

These hard times are reflected in Visa’s decision this year to create their #KeepItLocalThisChristmas ad campaign, which features various independent high street shop owners singing ‘All I want for Christmas’ by Mariah Carey, which ends with the tag line ‘Make their wish come true, support your local high street’.

The results of this change in tact away from blockbuster ads to focus on product have been mixed.

M&S’s Christmas ads have performed well in the past, with the popular ‘With Love From Mrs Claus’ and last year’s Paddington offering. This year they’ve opted for a food-based ad, with its typical still-food-porny shots, as well as an advert in which Holly Willoughby promotes her new range of ‘must have’ Christmas jumpers. This seems like a bit of a step down from Paddington and Mrs Claus, for a more acute focus on products and commercial deals.

The struggling department store, Debenhams, has also followed suit, moving away from the typical high-impact brand advertising, or what they call the ‘vanity TV project’, for more of an M&S style ad that is unashamedly commercial, with a digital first approach. The Christmas campaign centres on the joy of gift-giving as oppose to receiving. The move away from an emotional advert is an effort to help Debenhams “reclaim” its position as a destination for gifting, despite its closure of up to 50 stores. The campaign ‘Do a bit of you know you did good’, consists of four 20 second upbeat clips, which celebrate ‘fist-pump’ and ‘nailed-it’ moments, when people realise they’ve bought the perfect gift for someone. In an interview, Debenhams’ managing director of beauty and marketing, Richard Cristofoli commented “In the current retail climate in the UK, how can I look a colleague in the eye when we’re all being told we need to manage costs carefully and make sure we’re driving a simplicity focus and efficiency, and then tell them I’ve spent millions on making a vanity project TV ad? It would be remiss of any marketer not to be thinking really carefully about how they spend and invest to maximise return on investment.”

Lidl’s ‘More for everyone this Christmas’ ad focuses of food, in an admittedly forgetful and generic Christmas ad, and Curry PC World’s advert ‘The Magic of Christmas Updated’ is equally product based and with a somewhat dull narrative that depicts a classic Victorian Christmas complete with “upgraded” modern gadget gifts, to exemplify how gift giving has transcended and developed through the ages.

A number of brands have opted for consistency by building on previous messages. Last year Tesco ran their ‘Turkey, every which way’ #EveryonesWelcome campaign, and this year wasn’t dissimilar with their tagline ‘However you do Christmas, everyone’s welcome’, emulating the message of diversity and inclusivity. Boots have also continued on from last year with an emphasis on thoughtful gifting; last year they went for the hashtag #ShowThemYouKnowThem, with little variation this year with #GiftsThatGetThem. Similarly, Coca Cola have gone with their usual ‘Holidays are Coming’ themed ad, as have Amazon with their singing boxes.

McDonald’s too stuck with their #ReindeerReady campaign, which sees Father Christmas feed his hardworking reindeers with carrots from McDonalds, after the houses they visit on Christmas eve only leave out mince pies for Santa.

The one’s that came out on top

Heathrow Airport’s Christmas ad ‘Bears Return’ was very well received online and came out on top in a survey conducted by Verbatim, as reported by Marketing Week, which commented that it was the only ad to achieve a four-star rating this year, with a score of 79.6. The advert features two elderly bears, Doris and Edward, who travel home to be with their family at Christmas, because ‘Making it home, makes it Christmas’. The most touching moment for viewers is when the very in-love couple walk through Heathrow, which is where their romance first blossomed, as seen in previous adverts. Ross Baker, Heathrow’s chief commercial officer has spoken out about the decision to revisit the bears for the third year running. He said: “The nation’s love for Doris and Edward is overwhelming and has been since we first met them in 2016. For many people, being close to the ones we love is what really makes Christmas special. This is why we see the bears return to their family from warmer climes, as many of Heathrow’s passengers make similar journeys home for the festive season,” he added to The Independent.

It seems that the creation of a character with a storyline that unfolds over a number of years is proving quite popular, as Aldi too welcomed the return of Kevin the Carrot for their Christmas ad this year. Kevin has a dramatic face off with the wicked Pascal the Parsnip, which sparked much positive reaction, as viewers felt they were able to really connect with the characters and the story. In noticing the nation’s adoration for Kevin, Aldi were quick to react, and promptly released the sale of a Kevin the Carrot soft toy in their stores. This caused near hysteria at some of their branches last week as huge crowds of shoppers queued up to get their hands on one. There have been reports of fights breaking out in stores as availability is low, and consequentially people are selling them on Ebay at high prices.

For Davies + Scothorn the winner of the Christmas Advert 2018 has to be … ‘The Big Night’ by Sainsbury’s.

‘The Big Night’ marks a departure from their emotive blockbuster of 2014 that was the unforgettable ‘1914’, which depicted the WW1 truce on Christmas day with tremendous emotional depth and poignancy. Sainsbury’s used to rival John Lewis in this category, but this year notes a change in tact; they have gone for a much more light-hearted ad with the simple story of a group of school children working together to put on a spectacular Christmas school performance for their parents. The ad is not overtly commercialised, and it offers a refreshing Christmas scene, as oppose to the rather worn out analogy of gift giving. We have not chosen this ad as our top pick for 2018 solely because of its content, but equally because of Sainsbury’s decision to publish behind the scenes footage of the ad, in which they talk to the children, which feels like a ‘making-of’ video of the fictional performance in the advert. This becomes a reality when you learn that the children did actually perform this to their real-life parents, and kept the script and character roles tightly under wraps.

‘Plug kid’, as he is now known, became wildly popular because of his comic scene in the ad when he jumps into the socket and lights up the whole stage.

Sainsbury’s promptly shared ‘Plug kid’s’ portion of the interview on Twitter stealing the nation’s heart, the hashtag #PlugLife started trending on Twitter, and they kept conversations live with posts like these:

Aldi even got involved:

This is a relatively low budget ad, that is not so brazenly commercial and does not ride on the coattails of big stars to make an impact.


And now for our two cents on the much talked about John Lewis Christmas advert …

In Britain the John Lewis Christmas advert has become as much a part of Christmas as hanging up your stocking, so whatever you think about the quality of this year’s advert, in that sense John Lewis is already a winner. They sparked much controversy this year, resulting in discussions on news breakfast shows such as Good Morning Britain and reviews in major publications such as The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent.

Compared to John Lewis’s previous Christmas campaigns – which have included Moz the Monster, Buster the Boxer, Man on the Moon, Monty the Penguin and Bear and the Hare – 2018 marks a significant change in creative direction for the retailer.

The John Lewis Partnership, saw profits drop by 99% in the first half of the year, but whilst other retailers have reigned in their media spend and shifted their creative focus away from brand, to products and price, John Lewis still sees the value in emotional storytelling and the big TV spot.

I am a great fan of Elton John, he is a true British Icon that we can all be proud of, and ‘Your Song’ is undeniably an absolute belter. The production quality of the ad is stunning and the concept of thoughtful gifting is not an uncommon choice, as we have seen in the examples discussed above. So why do I, and many others, have an issue with the ad?

Firstly, the advert’s lack of festivity is problematic. The retailer’s customer director Craig Inglis argues that this was not ‘explicitly’ deliberate, but it perhaps too obviously exposes their intent, stated by Inglis himself, to make the advert resonate well beyond the festive period. In trying to make the ad more economically viable, and potentially to get away from a saturated genre, they have inadvertently produced an advert that seems devoid of the ‘Christmassy’ quality that viewers look for in a Christmas avert.

It’s very hard to ignore the fact that this has been replaced by an indulgence into the career of music superstar Elton John, resulting in stark celebrity endorsement. The spin at the end along with the tagline ‘Some gifts are more than just a gift’, attempts to bring it all into context, but feels like too much of a reach. I can see what they were getting at; indeed, the trajectory of his career is uplifting, feel-good and motivational, but if they were to use a generic character or unknown actor, they could have made the same impact without the celebrity tribute. In the past they have involved celebrities such as Lily Allen, Gabrielle Aplin and Ellie Goulding who sang the sound track to various Christmas ads without having an overshadowing presence or making it about them. Moreover, it’s all a bit too convenient the release of the advert coincides nicely with Elton’s new world tour.

Above all, the biggest problem with the ad is that there is an overarching implication that if you don’t buy your children something truly life changing (and expensive) you will ruin their hopes and dreams. For a store which only sells three (electric) pianos for nearly £872 a pop, it’s a pretty niche product they are selling here. JL have never advertised exclusively to the 1%, but this is successful in alienating a large proportion of their prospective customers. With the existing pressures on families at Christmas to provide, and equally with the turbulent economic times we are experiencing in the UK at the moment, it seems that John Lewis have really missed the mark on this one.

Waitrose & Partners, which is operated by the John Lewis Partnership, have released a series of light hearted 30 second spots as part of their 2018 festive campaign, which focus on the fact that people “will do whatever it takes” to get to the food at Christmas. Interestingly, in one of the short ads, they playfully poke fun at ‘The Boy & The Piano’.

At least John Lewis appear to have a sense humour. This has undoubtedly helped keep conversations live, and this is in line with the recent rebrand of Waitrose and John Lewis to ‘& Partners’, which aims to more obviously highlight the relationship between the two brands.


There’s a distinct lack of memorable festive advertising this year, consumers are bored with generic Christmas ads, so if you’re going to go for the big blockbuster storytelling you really need to raise your game. You need to justify spending huge amounts of money on one single campaign, which might not resonate with your audience and may seem insensitive whilst closing stores making people redundant. Equally, focussing too narrowly on product and price can be overwhelming, you could turn off already cautious spenders and you risk getting lost in the sea of promotional ads in the run up to Christmas.

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