From Asda to Waitrose, we review the big-name Christmas ads of 2023, identify some common themes, and get the industry's reaction, too.
Halloween's over, Bonfire Night's been and gone, and Mariah Carey's already shed her spooky costume to scream the festive season into existence for another year. It's time, in other words, for the Christmas ads of 2023.
Last year the focus was on themes of joy and nostalgia, with the occasional nod to budgetary concerns. So, what do this year's commercials look like?
Well, if you're a fan of cheesy music, you'll be in hog heaven: 2023's batch of TV spots is packed with it. Yes, there's the odd nod to contemporary pop, but it really is drowned out by a torrent of cheesy hits, mainly from the 1980s.
Another theme that clearly emerges is: "Cost of living crisis? What cost of living crisis?" Most of the big brands are carefully side-stepping the reality that most of us have a lot less ready cash to spend this year. In their ads, family tables are piled high with food, and there are plenty of expensive presents to go around. No one seems bothered about whether they can pay the gas bill.
There are ways to celebrate consumption without coming off as crass, of course. One is to lean into the whole 'giving, not receiving' aspect of Christmas and the importance of kindness. But that's a difficult balance to strike, lest you seem too opportunistic. At least a couple of ads have managed to pull this off this year, though.
More fundamentally, most of 2023's ads focus on homely activities and getting the family together. It's the little things that matter, they stress: sitting around a table, having a laugh, enjoying each other's company.
So those are the themes; what of the individual ads themselves? Read on as we dissect the ones that have made the biggest impression on us so far. Then, in the second half of our article, we get expert feedback from some of the creative industry's biggest agencies, who will select the winners (and losers) of this year's Christmas ads.
M&S: Love Thismas (Not Thatmas)
Firstly, we have to address the elephant in the room. The M&S Christmas ad is usually the feel-good highlight of the season. But this year's offering has been hugely controversial.
The brand has failed to read the room this year, with a spot featuring expensively dressed celebrities "hilariously" attacking Christmas traditions. To a cover version of Meatloaf's I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That), we see the stars blowtorch a pile of Christmas cards, upturn a board game, shred some shiny gold hats, and attack an Elf on the Shelf with a roll of wrapping paper.
Complaints have flooded in, including a prominent London headteacher who wrote an open letter saying that M&S had "put two fingers up" to the "values of decency" she was trying to instil in her inner-city pupils. And this was only the half of it. In a separate controversy, an image posted by the brand depicted burning party hats that matched the colours of the Palestinian flag. (Yes, most of us assumed this was a coincidence, but it points to a lack of careful editing at the very least.)
In short, this one has really gone down like a lead balloon. Admittedly, the ad created by the newly appointed creative agency Mother and director Ally Pankiw, best known for Black Mirror, has its admirers, too. Judith Woods, for one, has written a spirited defence in the Telegraph. But while for some brands, such controversy would be seen as a good thing, we're guessing that wasn't what M&S hoped for.
Morrisons: Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now
It's a tried-and-tested formula. Show families painstakingly putting a Christmas celebration together, bit by bit, until everyone gathers around the table and the glorious feast is unveiled – all to a banging, uplifting soundtrack. You need an original gimmick to pull everything together, though, which isn't easy.
This year, however, Morrisons has found a winner in an ad masterminded by Leo Burnett. The concept is simple but effective: oven gloves are transformed into puppets, who sing along with the soundtrack, Starship's 1987 hit song Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now. Everything is executed perfectly, and it's just a whole heap of fun.
Sainsbury's: What does Santa eat for his Christmas dinner?
Here's another original twist on the Christmas ad. In this 60-second advert created by New Commercial Arts, a curious girl steps up to the in-store tannoy at Sainsbury's to ask: "What does Santa eat for his Christmas dinner?" Her question sparks a flurry of responses from Sainsbury's workers, each offering their suggestions of festive dishes, showstoppers and treats. As they share their recommendations, items magically appear on Santa's Christmas dinner table.
Back in the store, pop icon Rick Astley has his own idea about what Santa might like, suggesting: "How about some cheese?" One of the workers responds: "C'mon Rick, cheese before pudding, you know the rules". Then another cheekily sings: "...and so do I".
If you're familiar with the '80s star's big hit, you may find this hilarious. If you're too young or too old to get it, well, never mind. Because as we previously established, this year, '80s pop rules the Christmas ads. So there.
TK Maxx: Festive Farm
In recent years, we've gotten used to seeing a lot of farm-based ads at Christmas. For supermarkets, it's a way to remind people of where the food comes from, plus farming, in general, feels quite nostalgic and homely anyway.
TK Maxx has also been getting in on the act, and its 2023 Christmas ad tells the story of farm animals celebrating Christmas in their special new knits. To the soundtrack of Eve and Gwen Stefani's Let Me Blow Ya Mind, we see a turtle neck-clad alpaca busking a crossbody bag, swiftly followed by a pair of ducks rocking Harry Styles-inspired pearls, an elegant silk scarf and suave pink bow tie. Which, historically, is not a sentence that's been written by many people.
Bringing up the rear is a hedgehog in a pink cashmere hat, followed by the goat from the 2020 TK Maxx Christmas campaign (for those who've really been paying attention). A bit of banter follows between the farmer and his wife, which, in all honesty, fails to totally land. But really, who doesn't like to see animals dressed up in clothes?
Sports Direct: Dream Big It's Christmas
Sports Direct's ad focuses on the ambitions of a little girl whose Christmas wish is to become the world's top sports star. In a series of playful dream sequences, Macy takes on a series of sporting heroes at their own game and eviscerates each and every one of them.
Directed by Fred Again's creative director, LOOSE, the ad features an array of home-grown sporting talent covering football, boxing and athletics. Again, we get an '80s soundtrack in the form of a reworked version of Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
This campaign doesn't really sit in the heartwarming category: no one ever thought humiliating the competition was the "true meaning of Christmas". And while encouraging kids to follow their dreams is a good thing, this ad doesn't really do that either. Rather than focusing on a specific sport and putting in the long hours of practice needed to succeed, the sequences are more idle fantasies of kids beating the grown-ups.
That's fun as far as it goes, and the child actor does a brilliant job of it. But the subtle implication of the ad as a whole seems to be: buy the right branded clothes, and the rest will follow. Which for a company with a dubious image (a 2016 parliamentary inquiry accused it of being run like a Victorian workhouse) doesn't quite sit right with us.
Those of us who were born before the internet took off don't really get it. But Gens X and Alpha find endless fun making videos for TikTok, YouTube and just each other. And Argos leans into this brilliantly in its Christmas ad.
It's the latest in a series of commercials starring Connie, a disturbingly lifelike blonde doll, and Trevor, a toy dinosaur. It shows Connie in a sparkling pink jumpsuit doing an epic dance across a Christmas table as Trevor films her. As disco classic Le Freak by Chic plays, Connie struts past a series of Argos products, including a hairdryer, a Sonos speaker and a cocktail shaker.
It all brings the fun of dancing to cheesy music in your kitchen to life, and you don't have to be a TikToker to appreciate that. Plus, the inclusion of Argos products is subtle enough that it gets the message across without being jarring. Developed by The&Partnership, the film was directed by Traktor and animated by Untold, with the characters voiced by People Just Do Nothing's Ruth Bratt and This Country's Charlie Cooper.
Waitrose & Partners: It's time for the good stuff
Of all the Christmas ads this year, Waitrose's is the furthest away from acknowledging the cost of living crisis. Presumably, because they figure people who are short of money wouldn't shop here in the first place.
Consequently, the target audience of this ad, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, is clearly people who want to spend the maximum amount of money to have the best possible time. It's not exactly the Hunger Games, where the rich in the capital gorge themselves stupid as the masses quietly starve in the districts. But it's not a million miles from it, either.
Just in case the message of untrammelled consumption wasn't clear enough, the ad is soundtracked with the Depeche Mode electro classic Just Can't Get Enough. And while the celebrations here are punctuated by minor comedy pratfalls, there's no sense of homeliness or warmth of human kindness on show, just a message that "as long as the food's good, everything's good". That cheese does look nice, mind.
Boots: Give Joy
Focusing on the joy of giving is a staple of Christmas ads. And the one that does it best this year is Boots. Its quirky spot begins, much like the Sainsbury's ad, with a girl asking her mum an unusual question. This time, it's: Who gives presents to Santa?
Without further ad, the pair set off on an epic adventure around the world to deliver their own gift to Father Christmas at his North Pole hideout. On their travels, kind strangers help them on their way, and in return for their generosity, they are given gifts from Boots.
It's obviously a far-fetched concept, but the performances are convincing, and the direction is speedy enough to whisk you along in a whirlwind of silly fun. The payoff lands. And that's pretty much all we can say. Put simply, it's an original idea, executed well... and who wouldn't want that?
Lidl: A Magical Christmas
Big-budget CGI-heavy spectaculars are a bit thin on the ground in this Christmas crop of ads. But Lidl's is one of the exceptions. It tells the story of an adorable raccoon who looks through a window to see a family decorating a Christmas tree. Suddenly, the family dog accidentally smashes the boy's much-loved monkey Christmas decoration. Wanting to cheer her son up, the mother picks up a cuddly toy at Lidl but accidentally drops it on the cycle ride home.
Having spotted the toy monkey in the snow, the racoon grabs it and proceeds to cross the city by any means possible: climbing road signs, riding the tube, and sailing on a log across a river. Finally, he enters the family home and puts the toy under the Christmas tree.
The moral of the story is pretty straightforward: small acts of kindness matter. It ties in with Lidl's Toy Bank initiative, a nationwide donation drive that last year saw over 80,000 toys donated to children who might not have otherwise received them.
Asda: Pop The Bublé
As we've already established, cheesy music is a big theme of 2023's Christmas ads, and you can't get much cheesier than Michael Bublé. Asda is making the most of the star, first introducing him in this teaser ad created by Havas London.
The spot sees Asda colleagues relaxing in a break room mid-shift until they're disturbed by an unusual 'gurgling' sound as the clock ticks to midnight. Journeying through a fantastical festive warehouse to find its source, they eventually reach a door marked 'MB inside. Do not open 'til 1.11.23'.
As the door swings open, a lone figure is revealed, silhouetted in the spotlight: it's Bublé, who turns to the camera and breaks into the classic It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. "Shall we?" he implores with a smile, and the words 'To be continued' appear on the screen.
In the next ad, the singer has apparently been installed as the Chief Quality Officer for Asda. He then proceeds to tour the store, meeting colleagues, checking various forms of party food, and gently sending himself up as a genial boss with an inflated sense of self-importance. Overall, it's pretty slight stuff, but somehow, the whole thing manages to look amazing and feel like a mini-Hollywood epic. The fact that it was shot by Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi might have something to do with that.
Baileys: Tis The Season With a Festive 'Choctail'
Advertising alcohol is a tough task. Because while most of us drink in moderation, booze is also associated with drunkenness, hangovers, bad behaviour and all sorts of other negative consequences. Baileys, though, almost has a free pass. No one ever went on a Baileys bender: you generally think of it as a one-off treat, especially around Christmas. And the brand leans into this masterfully in a sumptuous, family-friendly ad starring Ted Lasso's Hannah Waddingham and the MOBO Awards performing choir, the Gold Vocal Collective.
There's not much to it. Hannah Waddingham takes up the role of conductor for the choir, as they sing 'Baileys' acapella while a Baileys Choc-tail is made. But it works brilliantly and just goes to show that you don't always need a brilliant concept for a successful ad. Sometimes, people just like to see a bit of glamour, a bit of fun, and a sense of festive cheer: no overthinking required.
Amazon: Joy is Shared
Erm... honestly, we're not sure what we think of this one. Created in-house at Amazon, it starts innocently enough as three frail elderly ladies sit on a bench at the top of a snowy hill, appearing a little lost. Then one of the women gets out her phone, orders something from Amazon on her smartphone, then takes a sly sideways glance at her chums.
The next day, on the same bench, she presents the Amazon box that's just arrived to her bemused friends. It contains padded seat cushions, and they proceed to use them to toboggan down a steep, snowy hill. The experience is a joyous one, full of laughter. We then see flashbacks to them doing the same thing as children while a piano rendition of The Beatles' In My Life plays in the background.
Described in this way, this ad should be heartwarming and fill us with a sense of excited wonderment. Somehow, though, it left us feeling a little cold, if you'll pardon the pun. Perhaps because, in reality, the younger people on the slope would have dashed towards them shouting, "Don't be a bloody fool, Margaret, you'll break your hip!" Or perhaps because the idea that in today's world, even the elderly can't enjoy themselves without messing about on their smartphones (and feeding the all-conquering beast that is Amazon) feels like the most depressing Christmas message ever.
Aldi: Kevin & The Christmas Factory
If Lidl's is the only Christmas ad to go for live-action CGI so far, competitor Aldi is hot on its heels with this full-blown animation. And the concept doesn't take much explaining: they've basically re-hashed Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory with Kevin the Carrot in the lead role and transforming candied delights into Christmas dinner staples. So the chocolate river from the original becomes a river of gravy (traversed, of course, by a gravy boat), Veronica Salt becomes Veronica Sprout... you get the idea.
Apart from the fun of spotting all the Wonka references and how they've been turned into savoury delights, there's also a fundamental point about all the characters except Kevin being selfish and getting their just desserts. All of which leads to us discovering the "true meaning of Christmas and the importance of being good."
It's a moral that might sound trite in the hands of a lesser narrator. But as the ad's being voiced by national treasure Jim Broadbent, you end up feeling all warm and cosy inside. Our congrats to McCann UK for a magical Christmas ad that's right on target.
John Lewis: The Snapper
John Lewis has gone all 'Little Shop of Horrors' this Christmas with a strange yet emotional spot featuring a mischievious Venus flytrap. A young lad discovers a box at a local market labelled 'Snapper, The Perfect Tree' with the strapline, 'Let Your Traditions Grow' and decides to nurture it from seed in the belief that it'll turn into the perfect Christmas tree.
But when that doesn't happen, and the plant quickly grows into something quite unusual and full of personality, it becomes too big and troublesome for the living room and is cast out into the cold. But the boy and his family miss the green character so much that they give him some presents on Christmas Day and befriend him once more.
The campaign, which is the first to be produced by John Lewis' new ad agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, demonstrates how something a little bit wacky and "out there" can show the spirit of the season and bring everyone together. It's not our favourite. It isn't terrible. It's just unexpected. And perhaps that's the whole point.
The industry verdict
So, which Christmas ads excelled this year, and which ones missed the mark? We asked some big names from the world of branding and advertising to share their opinions.
We'll start with Turhan Osman, creative director at House 337, who was the creative lead on the 2019 and 2021 M&S ads at House 337. And he echoes many in feeling that most ads are taking a precautionary approach in 2023.
"The main theme of this year's Christmas ad offering I would describe as safe, with a good helping of unashamed positivity and joy," he says. "On the whole, the ads on display feel safe in one of two ways, and I use that with no sense of negative or positive connotation. They're either playing the hits on festive, warm, uplifting mass market appeal and/or going hard on the functional sales elements of advertising versus brand. Lots of joyful Christmas scenes of friends and family combined with a very matter-of-fact shopping list of the products on offer.
"It's clear brands are worried about their bottom line," Turhan continues. "There are lots of people looking at, describing, pointing at or receiving things and plenty of heavy-handed product shots – compared to years gone by when the focus very much seemed to be on storytelling, narrative and overall brand message. It feels like this year, retailers are very much trying to capture their consumers' cash versus their hearts as a primary focus. There are, of course, anomalies to that theme…"
Turhan adds that none of this stuff is easy. "It goes without saying anyone entrusted with a sacred Christmas ad knows what they're doing, but the pressure is insane and around every corner is a misstep that is the difference between brilliant, brave work and something more forgettable." He ends on a positive note. "My fave so far is Morrisons. It's brilliantly silly and fun, and the one I remember most so far."
Jess Smith, strategy director at TBWA, shares similar sentiments. "Finding a new angle on Christmas is always hard; too many lack the insight needed to cut through," she points out. "One common theme I've noticed this year, and one that shows a deeper empathy to our times, is Brands Giving Back. This might mean value, as we've seen with McDonald's. It could also mean raising a smile with comedic executions like TK Maxx. Or giving to those in need, through charity partnerships, like Lidl."
In the past, you didn't see a lot of the actual product or service in Christmas ads, but that's all changed this year, says Rachel Allison, founder of Axe + Saw. "The industry has returned to the roots of retail in 2023, focusing less on grand narratives and more on the tangible charm of their products. The nostalgia factor is stronger than ever, playing into our yearning for simpler times. It seems that the economic downturn has reshaped marketing strategies. The stories are being stripped back, and we're being sold products without the ornamental frills.
"Is this a recession-induced shift back to basics or a conscious choice by retailers? It's hard to say, but it certainly marks a departure from the dreamy storytelling levels of past campaigns."
Sylvia Wydra of JDO agrees: "They've moved away from the made-up universes of festive stories and all revolve around more relatable, life scenarios. Christmas feeling, shopping and conversations are at the forefront, influenced by the need to be closer together, and have genuine interactions."
She notes that way more products are being displayed, too. "It feels like true Christmas advertising where it is less cinematic storytelling, and more 'what you can get when you shop with us'." It's this realism that makes the big retailers more approachable. "We’re back at product placement Christmas ads to give ideas of what your Christmas can look like," she adds.
Some commonalities, though, can be detected. "The recurring theme this year seems to be connections, both emotional and human," she says. "On one hand, retailers are reaching for our heartstrings, perhaps hoping to coax open our wallets amidst the cost of living crisis. On the other hand, there's a noticeable emphasis on their employees, grounding these larger-than-life brands in a relatable reality. It appears to be a bid to offer reassurance and stability in an era where job security is a luxury many can't afford."
Her top pick is the Sports Direct advert. "It's refreshingly topical, focusing on children, dreams, and the universal love for football," she says. "The advert does a brilliant job of capturing the spirit of the sport and the aspirations it inspires in young hearts. It's a testament to the power of dreams and the joy of seeing them come to life, which is a sentiment we can all connect with, especially in these challenging times."
Lowest common denominator
Is it all, though, Christmassy enough? Melissa Robertson, CEO at Dark Horses, isn't sure.
"I'm a big fan of Christmas," she stresses. "I start buying the odd thing as early as August to get ahead of the game. So, I'm not a cynic, and I fully embrace the decorations, the music, and the anticipation. And boy, am I the target market for all the retailers. But I just felt a bit flat with almost all of them. They look Christmassy enough, but it feels as if too many people have been involved in too many of them, and there's a healthy – or unhealthy – dose of the lowest common denominator.
"Perhaps I was just desperate for something simple and fun. Thankfully, TK Maxx did that for me in spades: who doesn't want to see a llama in a bat-wing jumper? I do love 'pop the Bublé' as a line in Asda's ad."
As for overarching themes, she notes: "Santa comes up quite strongly, along with reworked songs, and there's a hefty use of fabulously expensive celebrity appearances. However, someone should perhaps have cross-checked that talent wasn't double-dating. I was definitely surprised to see Hannah Waddingham was knocking ads out for both M&S and Bailey's."
Random Rick Astley
Melissa is also unsure that stars are also incorporated into scenes in the best possible manner. "I totally get that celebrity can often drive the shareability of an ad," she says. "But I just didn't get why Graham Norton was shoehorned into that party, or Rick Astley was randomly in that supermarket aisle."
Rik Moore, managing partner of strategy at The Kite Factory, also picks up on the reliance of celebrities this Yuletide. "2023 is the year it feels that UK Christmas retail ads are following the playbook of US Super Bowl ads: 'launching' their spots to get cut-through, the spectacle of the creative, and an overabundance of stunt casting celebrities," he says. "It's not that these behaviours didn't exist in previous festive campaigns. It's just that this approach feels more ubiquitous this year. This issue is that if everything is the same, cut through will be harder."
Of all the celebrity cameos, he feels that Asda's partnership with Michael Bublé works the best. "They avoid the pitfall of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it / what-was-the-actual-point celeb appearance by firstly, making him the focal point, and secondly, it's an ad that talks to Asda's products, staff, and departments. It can only come from Asda; key for getting cut through."
Finally, he points to another ad we didn't include on our main list. "Barbour's Baa-bour ad with Aardman is incredibly charming," says Rik. "And again, it works because it puts an ownable product truth at the centre without spoiling the fun."
Overall, then, we're getting a sense that none of the Christmas ads we've seen so far are likely to win awards. In the words of Tom Drew, executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson: "So far, the pack feels a little congested with a lot of brands arriving with the same formula to the same party hoping their celebrity guest will help them be remembered," he says. "Points for the simplest premise goes to Boots' 'Who gives presents to Santa?'"
Zack Gardner, senior copywriter at Collective, echoes him in saying: "This year feels a little formulaic so far. Cheesy pop star or celebrity appearance? Tick. Getting through the product range? Tick. Safe but well done."
But while award-winning creativity might be something that excites the industry, it's not necessarily what the public wants. At a time of global upheaval, this year's ads have largely provided a sense of familiarity and nostalgia that ordinary viewers seem to be responding well to. And Zack makes a further interesting point.
"It feels like brands are being careful not to tell people how they should feel or how they should be celebrating this year," he notes. "It's actually quite refreshing. Given the political and financial climate at the moment, a little more realistic – with a splash of magic – feels about right."
In terms of individual ads, he feels that Lidl's doesn't quite hit the mark. "Lidl's feels like a pan-European offering where they've phoned the heart-warming story in a little. Plus, their tacit encouragement of importing non-native species to our delicate ecosystem is, quite frankly, unforgivable." His favourite, meanwhile, is Aldi. "They're reaping the benefits of having created their own vehicle, sticking to it and adding to its lore year after year. Plus, 'I can see his plum crack' is a genuine big laugh."