The Christmas ads of 2020: the year a pandemic changed the world

It's been quite the year. Charming as it's been, we were pretty interested to see how the major retailers would tackle the annual push to get us to part with our cash this Christmas, particularly when we're enduring a global pandemic.

Of course, every year there's always huge anticipation around this epic advertising battle. Big brands like John Lewis, TK Maxx, Boots, Amazon, Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Argos tend to launch big-budget campaigns to celebrate the festive season. But that cash isn't there this time, as latest figures from WARC and the Advertising Association would suggest.

In fact, UK advertisers are forecast to spend £724m less than last year, which is a 10.5% fall. This reflects a general trend of 2020, with Covid-19 leading brands to be more cautious with their spending. And with a recession looming, do brands really have the luxury to go as big this time around? Besides, how could John Lewis be seen to spend millions on ads when they're laying off thousands of staff?

With all this in mind, how are the Christmas ads so far? And have they considered all the themes that have sprung up throughout 2020? Climate change, for instance, and a pressing need to lessen our impact on the planet? Have they considered better representation and diversity, too?

Well, yes, they have. And they've also thought about the impact on all of us. John Lewis played the kindness card rather than gift-giving. We've seen Argos go down a nostalgic route, reminding us of happier times and how we can make that possible again. Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer got back to the serious subject of food (this isn't just any Christmas, this is an M&S Christmas). In contrast, TK Maxx gave us a good laugh with a sassy goat. There's a huge charity element this year, too.

As always, some are good fun; others spark a tear while the odd few are a bit hit and miss. We thought we'd ask some of the brightest minds in the advertising industry to reveal how they feel about the winners and the losers of Christmas ads for 2020. But first, let's remind ourselves of some of this year's contributions.

Aldi – Kevin the Carrot

Popular last year, 'Kevin the Carrot' returns for Aldi's Christmas spot, backed with the soundtrack from some of our favourite movies, Home Alone and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as a charming tribute to ET. Created once again by McCann, we watch Kevin go through many adventures, trying to get back home in time to be with his family. "Kevin’s out in the cold. Will he get home in time for Christmas?" reads the ad's description. There's even an appearance from Santa himself.

Amazon's The Show Must Go On

Amazon's 2020 ad tells the charming story of a young ballerina whose dream show is cancelled due to the pandemic and how it doesn't dampen her spirits. In fact, she continues to practice her routine, dancing wherever she can, all set to a rendition of Queen's The Show Must Go On.

Created by Lucky Generals, it features 17-year-old French ballet dancer, Taïs Vinolo, who in real life has also been impacted by Covid-19 but has continued to train and perform. As the ad's description reads: "In a year of twists and turns, not much has gone to plan in 2020. But, with some grit, determination and perseverance anything is possible." As the story unfolds, we see her sister and local community inspired by her determination and resolve, so they all pull together to give her a stage and an audience in an emotional finale.

Asda – That's an Asda Price Christmas

Asda was one of the first major retailers to launch its Christmas ad this year. Created by AMV BBDO, the spot centres around giving customers "the Christmas they need at the prices they want". Widely celebrated for its no-frills approach, it features Sunny and his family, making the most of a difficult situation. It captures the feeling of the nation by acknowledging that "Christmas is going to be different this year so let's really make the most of it".

Argos presents An Evening with Abracadaisy & The Incredible Lucy

After a challenging year, Argos wanted to lift the nation's festive spirits and build on last year's 'Book of Dreams' story, despite the retailer ditching its 47-year-old catalogue in June.

Created yet again by The&Partnership, the spot taps into the nostalgia that so many people can identify with, eagerly looking through the Argos Christmas gift guide and dreaming of opening their most wished-for gifts on Christmas Day. In the campaign, Argos brings this dream to life when two sisters spot a simple box of magic tricks and are transported to their very own magnificent magic show.

Boots – What The World Needs Now

Another campaign to focus on acts of kindness is Boots 'What The World Needs Now' spot that acknowledges the difficulties of 2020 and that love and care for others is what's needed the most right now. It stars soap, bath scrubs and toothpaste that come to life to sing a rendition of Burt Bacharach's What the World Needs Now is Love by British artist Rachel Chinouriri.

It was created by Emma Parkinson, Solomon Bednall-Greaves, Nicola Wood and Andy Forrest, and directed by Silence Aitken-Till via Curate Films. Part of the campaign is that Boots will provide hygiene essentials to millions of people in the UK living in hygiene poverty, by donating £1m worth of products to The Hygiene Bank.

Marks & Spencer – This is M&S Christmas Food

Grey London is behind Marks & Spencer's Christmas campaign for 2020, taking us back to the glorious "food porn" days of M&S that we all love to mock. The retailer has teamed up with nine celebrities to offer their sultry voices to various food ads, with one being released each week on the run-up to the Christmas period.

Just like John Lewis, M&S is giving back, pledging £2million to charities handpicked by the nine celebs. The first spot features the voice of Olivia Coleman, who tells us more about the 'Light Globe Gin Liqueur' with "edible gold leaf" and M&S's best-ever smoked salmon. Our mouths are already watering.

Sainsbury's Gravy Song

Sainsbury's takes a heartfelt look at food, family and memories in three-part Christmas advert collection, starting with the 'Gravy Song'. The spot tells how a father and daughter's excitement for Christmas gets them talking about Dad's gravy and his "famous" gravy song. The song brings back memories of years gone by, as the daughter tries to cope with the embarrassment of her Dad's singing, whilst admitting her love for the gravy (and the song, really).

In a year when Christmas feels more uncertain yet more needed than ever, the collection of nostalgic adverts aims to celebrate culinary memories with loved ones and transport us through time by centring around three personal stories of modern British families and their connection to Christmas food. It's another one to be created by Wieden+Kennedy.

Tesco – No Naughty List

Directed by Raine Allen-Miller from Somesuch and developed by BBH, Tesco's festive offering this year absolves us of our sins by saying, "After a year like this, we believe there is no naughty list. So go on Britain, treat yourself to the best Christmas ever". We can live with that.

We see a few characters admit they bought too many loo rolls. While others confess to poor video call etiquette. But the supermarket tells us to indulge anyway, as we "deserve it". It's a cheeky, fun spot all backed by one of Britney Spears' classics, Oops I Did It Again.

TK Maxx's The Lil' Goat

TK Maxx brings to life its "everyone deserves to feel special" message in its Christmas campaign from Wieden+Kennedy. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, the 30-second spot is voiced by esteemed British actor and voice of TK Maxx ads for the past four years, Bill Nighy. The infectious ad soundtrack, The Game Remix, is from Gabriel Garzon Montano, feat. Junglepussy, Seb remix.

Watching the story unfold, we're immediately greeted by campaign protagonist Lil' Goat in the opening shot, her farm-owners watching on as she struts across the snowy landscape to the beat, decked from head-to-toe in an enviably stylish designer outfit. When Susan questions Gary, "Did you buy the goat, a designer outfit?" Gary, instead of conforming to the stoic farmer type, looks on tenderly with a tear in his eye and replies, replies proudly, "Yes, she's had such a hard year. She bloomin' well deserves it if you ask me".

The ad draws to a close with the jubilant goat sliding freely across the icy terrain, delivering an important message that after the year we've had, everyone deserves to feel special this Christmas.

Waitrose & John Lewis – Give a Little Love

Inspired by the kindness we saw throughout the pandemic, the Waitrose and John Lewis advert was created by advertising agency adam&eveDDB, and isn't just a celebration of different forms of moving art – from animation and claymation to CGI and cinematography – it's made up of nine different vignettes created by eight different artists who are leading experts in their particular art, including Chris Hopewell, who has created music videos for Radiohead and Franz Ferdinand, and French animator Sylvain Chomet.

The unique approach was chosen in a spirit of kindness towards the creative industries, which has been hard hit by the pandemic. Instead of a single production team, multiple artists were selected, giving employment to many people across our creative community.

The Verdict

So who wins? And is it a yay or nay for this year's festive ads? Rik Moore from The Kite Factory, has nothing but positive feedback: "It is a resounding yay. I think, given all the Covid-related challenges the creative industry has faced this year, it is an even greater triumph that there are so many strong ads this year. It's a great showcase for how creativity can overcome barriers."

Andre (Dede) Laurentino of Ogilvy UK agrees: "This year, it's the calendar and the miserable weather which tell us Christmas is coming. They aren't the jolliest of emissaries. This time around, no merry street decorations, no shop windows with blithe blinking lights and no musical chimes are filling the crisp November air. One of the few traditions to be kept alive in such a heavily choreographed time of the year is the Christmas ads. Bless them.

"It's a noble and heavy weight to carry. Especially when business is hurting since the first half of the year. Most especially when shooting an ad was forbidden for the best part of the year, in most countries. And new back-up crew and cast costs were in play to guarantee the health and safety of production teams (right when budgets were being slashed by the day). So, yay! Someone had to carry the Christmas feeling mantle. Who knew that in this rising age of brand experience this job would fall upon the ads…?"

Richard Exon, founder and CEO at Joint says aside from the odd stinker, 2020 has been a bumper year for festive ads. "Long gone are the days when high street retailers had December to themselves. So the range and variety of what's on show today means there's something for everyone.

"We will all have our favourites no doubt, as well as those we skip. But taken as a whole the standard feels high. Perhaps the times we are living through mean that already talented people and ambitious brands have given a little extra thought to every element of the brief, the idea and the execution. Certainly, there are fewer cliches and lazy tropes than in previous years. And if ever there was a year for UK creativity to showcase just what it's capable of, this is it."

As for the best Christmas ad for 2020? "I think Tesco’s No Naughty List ad is particularly strong," says Rik Moore. "They've taken the decision to address the elephant in the room, and put coronavirus at the heart of the ad, but done so in a way that is different, genuinely funny and still feels very festive."

Andre says there's a make or break factor in every Christmas ad: "The audience knows exactly what the intention was. So, as the advertiser, you must dive head-first and go all the way. Not everyone is able to do it and it's cringey to watch the ads that want to be emotional but fall flat on its soulless face, or the ones that want to be fun and upbeat but only manage to come across as a pushy salesperson smiling a bit too much at everything."

Nevertheless, Andre does pick out some winners: "Coca-Cola has done an amazing job this year. McDonald's is tender (if only a tad too sad when we all could do with a bit of cheering up). John Lewis is always the one to beat and has to compete with its own previous successes, which is hard (sometimes too hard). Boots, our client, was in the eye of the Covid-19 storm this year and the entire company stepped up with their 'Prescribe Kindness' message, which continues during Christmas."

For Richard Exon, he believes the usual suspects have done a great job in 2020 and yet every year there is an outlier – the one that comes from a brand you weren't quite expecting. "This year it's Burberry's breathless burst through a London street with its utterly fresh take on magic realism. If you haven't seen it, do. You won't forget it.

"God knows it's hard getting to great work and when you witness it in any category, especially at Christmas, it's amazing how often great ads share the same essential qualities. Always assumptive, they show they don't tell. They make us feel something, not just think something. Maybe it's easier with fashion, maybe it's easier with luxury. But it's still a big bold idea that took courage to green-light. In a strong year, Burberry's the one that caught me by surprise."


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