Halloween is done. The nightly fireworks have calmed down. The inevitable festive race has begun between all the major retailers as they release their Christmas ads for 2022. But what's the overriding theme this year as they battle for our cash and attention? We take a closer look.
November might feel too early to think about Christmas, but for big brands like John Lewis and Aldi, it's one of the most important months in the retail calendar. Every year, just after Bonfire Night, retailers launch their much-anticipated festive ads, providing full-on entertainment and a fascinating insight into the country's general mood.
If last year's roundup had an overriding theme of kindness and optimism following another difficult year of a global pandemic, what do 2022's festive ads hint at?
The last 12 months have proved just as challenging as previous years, with an economic crisis looming and everyone worried about rising energy bills, higher-interest mortgages and more expensive goods overall. It's been stressful, to say the least. So how do the retailers balance the need for our cash with a sensitivity towards the current gloom? By the looks of things, they turn to joy and nostalgia, occasionally mixed in with a nod to our budget concerns.
Over the next few weeks, we'll be pulling together all the biggest retail ads (including the John Lewis spot which is expected to make an appearance mid-November). Once they're all in, we'll get feedback from some of the creative industry's biggest agencies, who will select the winners (and losers) of this year's Christmas ads.
Christmas ads of 2022
TK Maxx: Nail Christmas For Less
No one likes to be considered cheap, but we all have to tighten our budgets this year. Off-price apparel and homeware retailer TK Maxx square this circle in style by tackling it head-on. It focuses on Sam, whose father asks how she bought such great gifts. Sam responds: "Just went to TK Maxx".
Her father offers up his hand and starts a colourful OTT scene, like something out of a musical, as Sam dances through the town, getting hi-fives from everyone to a soundtrack of Cerrone's 1977 hit 'Supernature'. The message is clear: if you're worried that people will look down on you for shopping at a discount store, don't; after all, no one in this entire town takes that view.
Created by advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy London, the ad was filmed in Poland and directed by acclaimed director Max Siedentopf. There are three versions – 20 and 30 seconds for TV and 80 seconds for online.
Sainsbury's Taste the Difference: Pudding It Out There
Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Christmas range is its premium in-house brand. And in normal times, this ad might have stressed the exclusive, luxurious quality of these food items. In 2022, though, the store has clearly realised that won't go down too well with cash-strapped households.
So instead, they've focused on the word 'difference' instead; and stressed how the range provides alternatives for those who aren't fans of traditional Yuletide treats. And just for good measure, they've centred it around girl-next-door presenter Alison Hammond rather than anyone who might be perceived as posh and out-of-touch.
The story is set in an imaginary medieval world where a festive feast is planned. However, when a nervous young cook offers a traditional Christmas pudding, The Countess proclaims: "I've never really liked Christmas pudding", and orders him to bring her something else. Set to a medieval instrumental version of Wheatus' 'Teenage Dirtbag', the cook works day and night, mixing ingredients and even stealing an enormous biscuit from a disgruntled giant. The result is a Taste the Difference Caramelised Biscuit Christmas Pudding, and it's a roaring success.
The 60-second TV advert was created by Wieden+Kennedy London, and a 20-second and 30-second cut will also be shown across TV and on social, with the full 85-second advert available to watch on YouTube. As a tie-in, Sainsbury's is opening the Pud You Dare Café at HELLO LOVE, London, where visitors can enjoy a traditional pudding or try the brand-new Taste the Difference Caramelised Biscuit Pudding for free.
Asda: Have Your 'Elf a Merry Christmas
Some Christmas movies find an everlasting audience on TV and are enjoyed by generation after generation. 2003's Elf is one of them, and this year Asda has harnessed that appeal in a very clever way.
In its seasonal ad, the Christmas-loving character Buddy the Elf, played by Will Ferrell, is confirmed as Asda's newest seasonal recruit. It opens with a loving homage to the movie's memorable 'street crossing' scene, only with a train of Asda shopping trolleys rather than a New York City cab, causing Buddy to exclaim "sorry!" as it crashes into him. This marks the beginning of a chaotic sequence of events, which sees Buddy marvel at Asda's selection of Christmas goodies, eat all the maple-pigs-in-blankets samples, distract colleagues with his Christmas plans, and sing loudly over the store Tannoy.
If you didn't know who Will Ferrell was (and how old he now is), you'd assume Will Ferrell had acted for the ad itself. Instead, it uses original footage from the film, but in a way that you truly can't see the join. Created by Havas London and directed by Danny Kleinman through Rattling Stick, it was all put together via state-of-the-art VFX created by Framestore.
Having skilfully rotoscoped Buddy out of the original film, the team helped fit an entirely new world around him that was faithful down to the last eye line, shadow and cast interaction. Intricate match grading then provided the final touches, bringing our modern world closer to the look, feel and spirit of the original film.
Morrisons: Farmer Christmas Returns
Morrisons has taken a pretty straightforward approach to its branding in recent years, focusing above all on the quality of its food, and emphasising its support for British and Irish farmers. But that doesn't mean it can't be fun and imaginative with it. Last year, they introduced the character of Farmer Christmas, which paid dividends. So this year, he's been integrated throughout this year's campaign.
This 60-second TV ad, created with Publicis•Poke and directed by Frank Todaro of Moxie Pictures, follows Farmer Christmas, who we hear speak for the first time in his rich Welsh brogue, as he travels across his fields on a tractor to his festive workshop. The spot again showcases the work British farmers do to help make Christmas special and pays tribute to Morrisons' own workers: the "real life elves" who help make more than half the fresh food it sells.
The ad finishes with Farmer Christmas proudly explaining that Morrisons is the "only supermarket to be officially approved by me" because of its commitment to British farming, its food makers and its great value Christmas products. The 'Officially Approved By Farmer Christmas' stamp will be seen throughout the festive campaign in-store and across paid media. This ad is the first in a series of ten Christmas TV ads showcasing Morrisons' fresh food and festive deals to tie in with the World Cup as well as the Christmas period.
Aldi: He Shoots, He Scores...Or Does He?
Having a World Cup in December is a bit of a conundrum for marketers. But Aldi has decided to just go for broke and fuse the two in this ad tease paying homage to an iconic 1998 Nike World Cup Advert.
Created by McCann UK, the new 50-second spot shows Kevin the carrot and his family in the airport departure lounge, preparing for a Christmas trip to Paris. Kevin is reading a newspaper and expresses his disapproval over holding 'a football tournament in December'. He screws up the newspaper and then tosses it away... only for some familiar football characters to use it as a football for a kickabout. Set to the soundtrack of Elvis Presley's A Little Less Conversation, it's full of fun, very silly, and packed with puns on football stars' names, including Macaroony, Beth Swede and Marrowdona.
Tesco: The Christmas Party
Rising anger at our politicians amid an economic crisis may not sound like the most promising basis for a supermarket ad. But Tesco has gone there anyway.
The 60-second ad was inspired by Tesco data showing 87% of us believe Christmas brings joy, with a third feeling it is more important this year than ever. The ad opens on the snowy landscapes of Britain, with the opening line 'Britain, there's a joy shortage', a not-so-subtle reference to recent news events. We're then told that Tesco has formed 'The Christmas Party' to help the nation to stand up for joy this Christmas, and people take to the streets to remind us of all the elements of Christmas that bring joy, including party food, of course.
The tongue-in-cheek concept was developed by Creative Director Christine Turner and Creative team Marc Rayson and Callum Prior of BBH and directed by Fredriek Bond from MJZ production. The TV ad comes in a 60-second version and is set to the soundtrack of The Final Countdown by Europe. The campaign comprises TV, press, OOH, radio, social, in-store and PR.
Matalan: The Christmas Cupboard
Matalan doesn't really reference current events or the low mood of the country at Christmas. It basically just sticks to the idea that getting ready for Christmas is a magical time and a good way for people to take their minds off their problems.
Created by McCann Manchester, the spot sees our Matalan hero stepping through a magical Christmas cupboard and takes you on a Narnia-style journey featuring its fashion, gifting and homeware collections. As she finds herself in her Christmas future, we watch her enjoy the holidays as she mentally checks off her to-do list, including a sequined outfit, gift wrap, tags, 'fancy plates', and more. The concept responds to the brand's research that shows its customers love to prep for Christmas and emphasises the value that Matalan offers.
Argos: They're Coming, Be Ready
Of all the ads so far, this offering by Argos will resonate the most with those who are hosting this Christmas. Immersing us in the loving chaos of a busy Christmas day, this year's story, created by The&Partnership, focuses around a young couple who expect a small and quiet dinner, but are surprised when friends and family descend en masse.
The spot opens on the couple's home decked out with Christmas decorations, where the bloke asks, "So how many are coming", as he places a bowl of crisps on the table, the wife responds, "Hmm just a few", completely oblivious to the number of people about to descend on them.
The scene cuts to a crowd of excitable neighbours wearing their festive glad rags and holding presents and champagne flutes chanting "party". The scene then switches to a group of enthusiastic bakers wearing colourful aprons, running with trifles in hand, before focusing on some children joining the crowd too.
It's a joyful ad that reminds us to get prepared for the return of the big Christmas get together with the message: "They're coming, be ready". Cue the couple looking through the Argos app to see what they might need to accommodate more guests.
The 30-second spot launches for the first time today across TV and on social. Four different 10” edits are also expected to land across TV and on social towards the end of November. "Argos has always been for everyone, especially at Christmas," says Toby Allen from The&Partnership. "And by everyone, we mean everyone. No matter who's coming, how many of them, and what chaos they bring, Argos will have you covered."
Lidl: The Story of Lidl Bear
Lidl Bear is this year's most unlikely Christmas celebrity and the main character in Lidl's "paw-some" Christmas spot, one of the first festive ads to hit our screens last week.
The story begins when a dad accidentally shrinks his Lidl jumper in the wash, and his young daughter has the ingenious idea of putting it on her teddy bear. And, just like that, a star is born – finding fame in the aisles of Lidl before becoming the (expressionless) face of Lidl's ad campaign and experiencing the highs and lows of fame at Christmas time. But as the world goes crazy for this cute and cuddly stuffed toy, the big question is: will Lidl Bear make it back home for Christmas with its family?
See for yourself in this 60-second ad focusing on Lidl Bear and the family around the Christmas dinner table. Each subsequent cutdown centres around a different element of Lidl's Christmas offering, including alternative mains like the Deluxe Vegan Garland and desserts like the Deluxe Chocolate Cottage.
The campaign will run across the festive period and be live across TV, BVOD, OOH, cinema, print, digital and radio. Claire Farrant from Lidl GB said: "What stands Lidl Bear apart from other Christmas characters is its hilarious, deadpan expression. By displaying no emotion, it manages to create humour and deliver our message about what's actually important this Christmas."
Marks & Spencer: Gifts That Give
For Marks & Spencer this Christmas, there's a truly genuine cause behind its festive campaign as it's set to donate £1million to the Neighbourly Foundation, a charity that supports local community causes across the UK.
Positioning the retailer as the most thoughtful destination for stylish gifting this holiday season, the Gifts That Give spot shows how the presents consumers choose from M&S help support local good causes. Even better, the campaign features over 70 cast members from some of those real initiatives including from The Kaotic Angels Club, Bengali Sanskriti Club Peterborough, Paddington Arts Dance Group, Valley Invicta Primary School at Eastborough's Majorettes, the Kearsly Brass Band, Caenhill Countryside Centre and the Y Centre Skaters.
It's a heartwarming ad that comes at just the right time, too. "When we found out that many charitable groups and organisations are experiencing a drop in funding, we knew we had to put community spirit right at the heart of this year's campaign and create something that would make people smile," explains Anna Braithwaite from M&S Clothing and Home. "Gifts that give is a heart-warming, feel-good and colourful celebration of the unsung heroes that do so much for so many."
Created in collaboration with House 337, the campaign was produced by Partizan and directed by Michael Gracey (the Greatest Showman). It features music by Harry Styles, with the ad's soundtrack Treat People with Kindness marking only the second time he has allowed one of his tracks to be used on an advert. In keeping with the campaign's theme, Harry Styles is kindly donating his fee to homeless charity, Centrepoint. It will run for six weeks across TV, VOD, cinema, digital, social and print.
John Lewis: The Beginner
It's finally here. The ad we've all been waiting for. But rather than resorting to a friendly alien, as John Lewis opted for last year, the retailer has stayed a little closer to reality, bringing us something more meaningful by raising awareness of children in care. It follows the launch of the Partnership's 'Building Happier Futures' programme, a long-term commitment by John Lewis to help young people with experience of the care system in various ways, including finding meaningful careers.
As you'd expect, the 90-second spot, titled The Beginner, focuses on the sentiment that it's what we do that matters most. From the opening scene, with Christmas as a backdrop, we follow a middle-aged man as he struggles comedically to master the skill of skateboarding. We see through his determined eyes many failed attempts and mishaps as he suffers a series of accidents. We're left questioning the motive behind his perseverance until the final scene when there's a knock at the door. We see a social worker standing with Ellie, a young teenager waiting anxiously to enter her new foster home, skateboard in hand. The significance of skateboarding to our protagonist becomes clear as we understand his resolve to find common ground and a way to connect with Ellie as she is welcomed into their family home.
Set to the soundtrack of All the Small Things, a cover of the Blink 182 track performed by Mike Geier, it'll no doubt spark a few tears this Christmas. More importantly, it will hopefully encourage millions of us to support John Lewis in its mission by purchasing from its Lewis Bear range, where 25% of the profits will go to Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland – the partner charities that worked with adam&eveDDB, as well as specialist advisors, to create the ad.
The industry verdict
So which Christmas ads excelled this year, and which ones missed the mark? We asked some big names from the branding world to weigh in with their opinions. And perhaps surprisingly, they all picked the same overall winner. But before we get to that, Josh Pearce, creative director at Dark Horses, flags up some of the ads that didn't make our main list.
"Boots' Christmas spot sees a woman on a bus picking up a pair of glasses that an old Santa-looking-fella left on his seat," he begins. "When she puts them on, the world around her turns into a winter wonderland, helping her pick the perfect prezzies for her loved ones. This acid-trip of a Christmas ad does all the right stuff, but I would have liked to have seen an additional vignette at the end where we see the woman battling conjunctivitis on Boxing Day after contracting it from the random old man's specs."
Next up is phone company O2's Christmas ad. "O2 had a bash at doing a John Lewis, with a sad-looking 'snowgran' wandering the streets to a sad piano version of an Ed Sheeran song," explains Josh. "The old woman thaws out when a random little girl gifts her a prepaid sim card so she can FaceTime her family. A family who gleefully ditched her at Christmas to roam abroad but couldn't afford to top up her phone before leaving. I hope their Christmas Day tuna niçoise gives them a dicky tummy."
"Lego did that thing that Lego always does," continues Josh, "and showed the imaginations of children coming to life. But this time, it featured Katy Perry performing everyone's favourite Guy Fawkes tribute, Firework. I preferred the Grammarly pre-roll that played before the ad, which says a lot."
More to his taste, though, was the ad from cranberry juice brand Ocean Spray. "This ad unleashes the weird and wonderful, with a drab-looking Christmas dinner coming alive after three wiggling cans of Cranberry jelly are introduced to the table," says Josh. "The diners follow suit and begin to wiggle, performing a dance akin to Peep Show's Mark Corrigan at Rainbow Rhythms. What's not to like?"
Overall, though, Josh is not impressed with this year's crop. "Like looking in the fridge on 28 December, there were slim pickings this year regarding truly great Christmas ads," he believes. "Many were as disappointing as picking out a coconut eclair from a box of Quality Street, although with a couple of absolute bangers to get you feeling warm and festive."
Of course, the context this year was a challenging one. Adam Johnson, creative director at Interbrand, contrasts the cautious optimism of December 2021 with the weariness of Yuletide 2022.
"Last year's ads were all about going big after the cancelled Christmas of the year before," he notes. "A collective sigh of relief at the return to the normal end-of-year blowout. But this year, our high street brands are stuck — how do you strike an optimistic tone after the doom and gloom as we live through that least festive of times… a cost-of-living crisis?
"The answer is less creative or surprising than you might hope," he continues. "It seems as if each has retreated to their comforting and traditional themes: full-on schmaltz, modern family values – often through great work with charitable causes – or affordable quality with a festive twist. So, while it may feel like we're living through unprecedented times – once again – perhaps Christmas advertising is as predictable as the socks you'll receive on the day, which might not be such a bad thing after all."
Excess vs reality
That said, some took a less predictable path than others. And Rowenna Prest, chief strategy officer at Joint, identifies three common themes throughout this year's batch of ads: 'celebrating the excess', 'celebrating the excess with a nod to reality' and 'supporting what Christmas is really about'.
As for the first, celebrating the excess, she notes that this path was less well trodden in 2022 compared to more bountiful years. "But whilst there was a risk in appearing tone deaf, I do think people want a break from the doom and gloom, even for just one day," she argues.
"Sainsbury's Taste the Difference did this well," Rowenna believes. "Whilst the fairytale setting did feel a bit familiar, the food looked absolutely delicious. They didn't knock less superior – and therefore cheaper – food, instead leaning into the truth that some people simply can't stand parts of traditional Christmas fare, so need something a bit different."
So what about **celebrating the excess with a nod to reality*? "If celebrating the excess was potentially risky, adding a dash of reality was even more so," Rowenna believes. "Get it wrong, and the Christmas bubble would immediately burst – bah humbug, Argos!" She feels that Tesco trod the line just right, though. "The Christmas Party felt joyful, and the nod to reality felt helpful – in that you can get delicious food at great value – and entertaining. And funnily enough, having the Christmas excess rub up against a bit of reality made that excess feel all the more necessary."
On the whole, though, she feels that the third theme, supporting what Christmas is really about, has been the winner this year, with both M&S and John Lewis choosing it. "By demonstrating their commitment to charity, both brands went beyond simply showcasing product in a creative Christmas wrapper and got to the true meaning of it: togetherness, kindness and compassion," she argues. "Ironically, I'm sure this highly emotive move away from such naked commerciality will probably pay back the most strongly."
M&S's joyful take on supporting communities, she argues, was spot-on for a post-Covid world where we value community and being together more than ever.
The outright winner
Her outright winner, though, was John Lewis. "Their film was a beautiful demonstration of the familial kindness that underpins a lot of Christmas behaviour," Rowenna says. "Their extreme example of this beautifully pulled at the heartstrings and was a welcomed break from having so much fun this Christmas."
Adam Johnson agrees. "If I'm forced to pick a favourite, John Lewis was the one clear winner," he says. "When you have a young family as I do, you can't help but appreciate the sentiment of this ad; it puts the year here in the UK into perspective and shows how a brand can use its profile to actually make things a little better. While it's not a creative cracker like some of their past more memorable festive ads, it might be their most important."
And it's three for three: our third expert Josh also picks the John Lewis ad as his 2022 Christmas favourite for a particularly personal reason.
"Having spent a lot of Christmases with foster kids when my mum was a carer, this really hit home and brought attention to something incredibly important," says Josh. "The big reveal is that this man, who appears to be having a midlife crisis, is only learning how to skate so he and his new foster child will have something to do together. Another goosebump moment in a long line of goosebump moments from John Lewis.
"When I saw the teaser for the ad featured a skateboard, I was ready to slate the creatives for not using Sk8r Boi by Avril Lavigne or Heaven is a Halfpipe by OPM," he adds. "But they did one better with a low and slow version of All The Small Things by Blink-182. The 13-year-old me was screaming and crying. Crying and screaming."
And, like everyone who works in branding and advertising, Josh knows exactly what an achievement that is. "We all know how excruciatingly difficult it is to write and produce a telly ad at the best of times, but Christmas adds a special sprinkling of soul-crushing pressure, so Merry Christmas to everyone who did it and survived to tell the tale," he notes.
Josh also pays tribute to Asda's Buddy The Christmas Elf spot. "Without a doubt, the best in the battle of the supermarkets," he says. "The team at Havas used a little Christmas magic to bring Buddy himself to an Asda store, with enough charm and technical wizardry to bring a big old smile to this cynical face of mine."
And finally, he has words of praise for TK Maxx. "Their Christmas ad is bold," he enthuses. "They showed us that Covid is long forgotten with their very own festive super-spreader event. A woman donning a jazzy TK Maxx outfit wandered the streets of her local town, high-fiving absolutely everyone after nailing her gift-giving duties. Despite a distinct lack of hand-sanny, it's fun, bright and joyful."