It's November once again. Even before you've taken down the Halloween decorations, the annual race is on between major retailers as they launch their Christmas ads for 2021. But what is the mood this year in the epic festive battle for our cash and attention?
Love them or loathe them, there's always great anticipation around the Christmas television adverts from big brands like John Lewis, Amazon, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer. Not only are they fun to watch, getting us in the mood for happy times spent with family over the holidays, they also give us a feel for the country's collective spirit.
Last year, the global pandemic's impact could be seen everywhere with Amazon's The Show Must Go On, featuring 17-year-old French ballet dancer, Taïs Vinolo and Boots reminding us of the importance of acts of kindness with its 'What The World Needs Now' campaign. We also saw more diversity in the creative output overall, with Sainsbury's Gravy Song being a hit and leading to better representation in advertising.
Whilst 2020 and Covid-19 meant many creative studios and agencies couldn't film in their usual settings, reaching instead for animation and stop motion, this year seems to present quite a mix of mediums. On themes, diversity is proving not just to be a one-trick pony, and there are nods to global events, too.
But overall, there's a mood of optimism and joy as many of us prepare to spend a "normal" Christmas with family and friends when many of us couldn't last year. Perhaps there's a recognition that life has been a little too serious and sad of late – that we could all do with some magic to brighten what feels like darker days.
First, we'll run through some highlights. Then, we'll get some insight from some of the creative industry's biggest agencies, including Joint, Ogilvy and Kite Factory, who will help us pick out the winners (and losers) of this year's festive ads.
TK Maxx: Christmas to the Maxx
For the sixth year running, ad agency Wieden+Kennedy London has created TK Maxx's Christmas advert, and this year's offering is directed by the acclaimed director Raine Allen-Miller. 'Christmas To The Maxx' tells the story of an unexpected hero, an awkward teenage boy called Laurie, getting ready to perform at a Christmas comeback concert in his local town hall. Due to the show being cancelled last year, anticipation is high, and the hall is full of people eager to see locals showcase their talents.
It's an all-singing, all-dancing 2021 Christmas ad featuring a special version of Walk This Way by the legendary rock band Aerosmith. It reminds us how different Christmas was for so many of us in 2020, making this year's celebrations pretty significant. The campaign aims to capture the spirit of making this Christmas feel extra special, whatever that may mean for each of us. The idea at the heart of the work is that a truly thoughtful gift can unleash absolute joy for the recipient, their family and friends.
John Lewis & Partners: Unexpected Guest
John Lewis continues to tug at the heartstrings this year with a story about friendship. Created once again by Adam&eveDDB, the ad launched a little earlier than planned this year, recognising a surge in online searches for festive gifts as shoppers are perhaps concerned about any supply problems in the lead up to the big day.
Moving on from Hare and the Bear in 2013 and Monty the Penguin in 2014 – friendships that usually inspire millions – and following on from last year's focus on kindness and giving to charity (and supporting the creative industries), for 2021, John Lewis sees a crash-landed alien girl make friends with a human boy.
Set to Lola Young's gentle rendition of the 1985 Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder hit Together in Electric Dreams, the ad that took ten months to make. It seems to show none of the retailer's products. – something which has attracted some negative press. But does John Lewis need to remind us what it sells? Has the retail giant hit the right spot for this year's festive ad? We'll let you decide.
Aldi: Ebanana Scrooge
Aldi has released a charming Dickensian-style take on A Christmas Carol with a spot that follows the story of Christmas loathing Ebanana Scrooge, who is reminded of the joys of the festive season by Kevin the Carrot who returns to screens once again this year, despite rumours to the contrary. There was a public outcry when a teaser video featuring only Ebanana Scrooge appeared on social media over the weekend, leaving fans fearing for the fate of the nation's favourite carrot.
Created by McCann UK, the animated Yuletide story introduces us to a medley of fruit and vegetable characters, including Marcus Radishford, which is voiced by the England striker, Marcus Rashford, as well as Tiny Tom, Peas and Goodwill and Kevin's Dickensian family.
It's part of a seasonal campaign that will see 1.8 million meals donated to families that need help across the UK over the festive period.
Marks & Spencer: Make The Season Anything But Ordinary & PercyPigmas
Marks & Spencer has released two Christmas adverts for 2021: its clothing division and its festive food and drink. The creatives are based on its recent M&S Family Matters report, which shows that 39% of families in the UK plan to make Christmas extra magical this year, following all the sadness and restrictions of the global pandemic.
For food, Marks & Spencer has brought its iconic Percy Pig character to life for the first time. It's arguably its best-selling treat, created back in 1992 and now a national institution. Grey London is behind the campaign, which sees Hollywood actor Tom Holland as the voice of the pig and Dawn French as the fairy.
For the retailer's clothing campaign meanwhile, actor Madisyn Ritland is the star of the ad. Created by ODD London and shot by Autumn de Wilde, it's a nostalgic walkthrough of the iconic moments of Christmas, beginning with a nod to Mary Poppins and Singing in the Rain. From shopping for gifts to having fun in your PJs with the family, it's backed by Darlene Love's A Marshmellow World. For those who love Christmas, the hairs on the back of the neck will surely stand to attention.
Matalan: Real Moments, Real Magic
Created by McCann Manchester, Matalan's festive campaign for 2021 sees three people share their Christmas celebrations and why they're special to them. Warm, funny, uplifting and above all relatable, they each show a different scenario demonstrating the emotional connection many people feel during this season. Created to stir a sense of nostalgia and emotion with the audience, the campaign plays to Matalan's ongoing brand message of Real Life Ready.
First to air is Evie's story, a stylish, savvy woman enjoying a fun-filled impromptu Christmas celebration with her neighbours. Next up is a mum of two, Nikki, who is hosting an annual festive night with her girlfriends, with music, dancing, cocktails and cooking the order of the occasion. And finally, we hear from 5-year-old Max about what Christmas means to him while he directs and creates a special boxing day play with his big sister, step-mum, and grandfather in his living room – homemade props included.
House of Fraser: House of Festive
House of Fraser has become House of Festive as it launches its 2021 Christmas TV campaign, created in collaboration with What's Possible Creative Studio and The Specialist Works. At its heart is a reminder of the joy of Christmas, gifting and shopping and features a multi-generational cast luxuriating in the fun, extravagant festiveness of the season – everything they can find at the 'House of Festive'.
The inspiration came from insight into our desire to make this year's Christmas particularly special (sound familiar?) after the disappointment of last year's cancelled celebrations. It asks the question, Where is better to go to meet all your Christmas needs but House of Fraser as the ultimate House of Festive? The campaign is aimed at Christmas gifters, in particular, those who see the Christmas shopping trip as an annual event, buying for all, and so needing the unique mix of brands and departments on offer at the high street retailer.
Boots: Bags of Joy
BAFTA-nominated actress and Doctor Who star Jenna Coleman plays the leading role in Boots' festive ad for 2021. Directed by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper and created by The Pharm, the three-minute advert titled Bags of Joy celebrates togetherness and nostalgia.
Coleman reaches into a bottomless bag literally of "joy" and, like Mary Poppins, finds a whole ton of stuff inside. It's all set to music by a 45-minute orchestra, recorded at Abbey Road Studios, conducted by Rachel Portman OBE, the first-ever female composer to win an Academy Award.
As Boots puts it, "This Christmas is all about joy. The joy of being with friends and family, the joy of getting out there and connecting with each other. The joy of giving the perfect gift." It's apparently Boots' most integrated campaign to date, too, with accompanying feel-good marketing for in-store footfall and use of new technology like shoppable TV ads.
Argos: Baubles to Last Year! Christmas is On
The&Partnership is behind Argos' Christmas ad for 2021, and it's another British retailer to recognise our appetite for going "big" this festive season given the disappointment of last year. The campaign shows the pure joy of Christmas and all the ways we can make a big splash, like setting fire to the Christmas Pudding with a blowtorch (ok, maybe not) and decorating our office Christmas jumper with as many lights as possible.
It's a little daft and silly, celebrating festive traditions to the extreme, but the 60-second fun spot reminds us that Argos is a decent source of inspiration for shoppers looking for that perfect gift for family and friends. We even see the "book of dreams" in one clip, adding a sense of much-needed nostalgia to the short.
Barbour: Paddington, Please Love After This Bear
Passion Pictures has created a film featuring another British icon, Paddington Bear, as part of a campaign by Thinking Juice for Barbour. The festive spot is the first time ever that the style of original Paddington illustrator Peggy Fortnum has been brought to life in animation. "It was a real labour of love to do true justice to that style, and I'm so proud of the results," says Sam Gray from Passion.
In the charming ad, we see Paddington, voiced by actor Paul Panting, trying to find a last-minute gift for the head of the family, Mr Brown, on Christmas Eve. In Paddington's usual "genius" style, he decides to re-wax one of Mr Brown's old Barbour jackets. It's a slapstick moment from one of our favourite characters from childhood, reminding us that it's the thought that counts.
Lidl: Big on a Christmas You Can Always Believe In
Ad agency Karmarama has created this festive spot for Lidl, starting with a look at Christmas being celebrated in the present day to a glimpse at the future and how humans might enjoy the festivities years from now.
Not surprisingly, festive traditions remain the same, as the campaign message repeats the brand's ethos, that it's "big on quality" and "always Lidl on price". For this offering, it states: "And we mean always!" and proceeds to show the ad's protagonist carving the turkey with a laser. It's fun, it's ridiculous, but it's Lidl's usual cheeky sense of humour that shows it doesn't take itself too seriously but appreciates it's a brand that is committed to quality and value.
Sports Direct: Go All Out This Christmas
Sports Direct has been quite the surprise contender in the battle for this year's festive retail battle. Its spot, which is rumoured to have cost £6 million to make, features a star-studded lineup including athletes Jack Grealish, Emma Raducanu, and Jessica Ennis-Hill, as well as grime artist Big Narstie.
Titled Go All Out This Christmas, it's a brave yet much-needed move for the high street retailer, who, like many brands, has endured two difficult years thanks to the global pandemic. Created by London agency MOX, who was also behind last year's Sports Starts Here campaign, this latest offering feels authentic, humble and gloriously cheerful. And who doesn't love a snow fight? Or indeed a White Christmas?
Morrisons: Farmer Christmas
Morrisons is introducing Farmer Christmas to the nation with its festive ad this year, following two young friends who discover the other hero of Christmas. The 60-second spot tells a tale about Farmer Christmas who works "all year too" in order to deliver a delicious Christmas feast to tables all over the country.
As British farming's single biggest customer, it's why Morrisons has chosen to hero farmers in its advert as a way of thanking them for all the work they do to help make Christmas so special. The supermarket also shines the spotlight on its colleagues – many of whom feature in the advert – and showcase the food makers in its stores and manufacturing sites who enable the store to make more than half the fresh food it sells. It's humbling, authentic and feels a little more heartfelt than other contenders.
Coca-Cola is another to tap into some "real magic" this Christmas with its festive ad that focuses on the concept of community. Featuring a story of a young boy who brings his apartment block together to celebrate the holidays, it opens with his desire to create a chimney out of cardboard boxes, ready for Santa Claus to deliver presents.
Once his neighbours understand what's happening, everyone joins in and together, they connect and remind us of that community spirit many of us enjoyed last year when the pandemic inspired us to reach out to others. Crafted by DentsuMB UK, the whole film is set to an orchestral version of Mary Poppins' Chim Chim Cher-ee, it's certainly uplifting. And no, that's not a tear in our eye.
The industry verdict
So who are the winners of this year's festive ads? And have they set the right tone after the year we've had? We asked a few big names in the creative industries to hear their thoughts.
Richard Exon, the founder of Joint, says he can't remember a time when there were just so many Christmas commercials to catch up on. "Sure, the days of Boots, M&S and John Lewis having the limelight to themselves are long gone, with the likes of Amazon, Google and Burberry all doing great work at Christmas in recent years. But this year feels like a high watermark for sheer volume," he says.
"The good news is that creatively most brands manage to carve out space apart from one another. And at a time of year when it can feel like cliches exert a gravitational pull on the creative imagination, that's no mean feat. The minor gripe might be that some of them are just so bloody long this year. Perhaps a more compact 90-second edit would have held the narrative together more?"
On choosing any favourites, Richard believes there are many highlights in this year's crop. "The tone of John Lewis, so hard to get right in today's environment. Jenna Coleman's perfect casting and expert performance for Boots. The very modern chutzpah of the Argos spot," says Richard. "But the really striking and wonderful thing about 2021 is the diversity of on-screen representation across almost all the campaigns. Amazon has always been strong on this front, and this year's ad is another great example. It really feels as if agencies and clients across all sorts of categories are taking representation seriously. Whilst there is a long, long way to go – and whilst on-screen representation is only one part of diversity and inclusion – it's encouraging to see an industry making progress." And progress it is making.
There's another "yay" from Rik Moore, head of insight, strategy and planning at The Kite Factory. "There's a unifying feelgood, festive magic to this year's Christmas ads," he says. And he believes there are some definite winners: "Argos actively calls the situation out, with Baubles to Last Year, as Tesco did so well last Christmas with the No Naughty List ad. It adds a bit of extra edge and relevance and feels more connected to this specific moment in time, which helps it cut through," he says. "I also love what Marks & Spencer has done with the XM&S logo. So simple, but incredibly clever."
Rik adds: "Whilst there are few true standouts, it must also be said that very few get it wrong. The vast majority embrace the magic of Christmas, a safe bet as this will always remain the ambition with the public, no matter what goes on with Covid-19 restrictions."
But not everyone is happy with this year's output. Nicola Wood, creative director at Ogilvy, gives them a thumbs down. "I don't want to sound like Ebanana Scrooge, but none of this years' festive ads is giving me the feels," she says. "I so wanted to love the John Lewis ad because who doesn't love a JL Christmas ad, but it feels like a formula now, and it doesn't surprise me. A familiar story reminiscent of E.T, but the craft is as always sublime. For that reason, too, I'll give the Boots ad a mention, wonderfully shot and lovely little bits of writing like asking for baubles and bubbles appearing but far too many product placements for me, even if it is the most shoppable TV ad to date. And love them or loathe them, I'm partial to a pun, and Ebanana Scrooge put a smile on my face."
There is one thing everyone can agree on. As Christmas didn't happen for so many in 2020, this year's celebrations were always going to be big. It's allowed brands to make an extra special splash, getting us all in the mood for the holidays with a little magic and nostalgia. But the creativity has come with new challenges.
"It's never easy writing a Christmas ad because so many good ones have come before," adds Nicola from Ogilvy, "plus it's a hard climate at the moment with global shortages and rising prices of goods and food, but last year Christmas was literally cancelled, so it was a chance to come back with a bang."
Richard agrees but thinks the overriding theme of optimism will sit well with the British public: "Well before there was Christmas advertising, we Brits had somehow decided this was a time of year when real-life rules don't apply," he says. "Taken objectively, the whole thing is incomprehensible. Chop down a tree and stick it in your sitting room? No problem. Tell your kids a stranger's coming into the house at night to drop off presents and pinch a mince pie for his magic deer? You bet. Eat three days worth of food in one sitting wearing a paper crown? Bring it on. Deep down, we know Christmas is brilliantly nonsense, but we roll with it because sometimes – often in fact – it's great fun. Just like Christmas advertising then."