The Battle for Virality: How the advertising industry stole Christmas

Elliott Haworth
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M&S tugged the heartstrings with this year's offering (Source: Marks and Spencer)

Consumer capitalism is like an annual balloon, pumping in steady increments throughout the year.

It grows and grows, stretching and straining around November, taut before the Black Friday Pin; the pressure too much, one prick and the balloon explodes in a relentless cloud of Christmas advertising.

But where has this volley come from? We can’t even blame Americanisations like Black Friday; their festive ads are garish by comparison. Clearly Christmas is no longer just about religion. In the UK, our annual pilgrimage is to the television, the disciples John, Lewis, Mark and Spencer. But where did it start? City A.M. speaks with key figures in the advertising world, from agencies to producers, to figure out what triggered the Battle for Christmas.

A Christmas Story

Remember the ambiguous perfume ads of the nineties? They’re still around, but glean nothing like the prominence of the John Lewis and M&S ilk. The Battle of the Ads is an emphatically British phenomenon – “nobody does Christmas like the UK,” says David Kolbusz, chief creative officer at Droga5. “In America you’ve got Thanksgiving at the end of November which, because of its secularity, ends up being a bigger holiday.”

But Christmas advertising is about more than just trying to sell products. “The narrative is emblematic of the newfound meaning of the season, as we move away from religion,” says Josh Bullmore, head of planning at Leo Burnett Group, who oversee McDonald’s and Co-op’s Christmas ads. “We make sense of the world through stories. As the religious stories of Christmas sink ever further into the background of our collective consciousness, we seek new stories to take their place.”

Where once it was Hollywood that dominated the season with joyous tales of family and togetherness, advertising has stepped in. “When you consider the attention deficit disorder that affects most of us in this social media age, it’s hardly surprising that films of 90 seconds, not 90 minutes, seem to be best at capturing the public imagination at Christmas,” adds Bullmore.

UK companies will spend an estimated £5.6bn on marketing in the run-up to Christmas – £300m more than in 2015 and the most ever spent in the festive season, according to the the Advertising Association. The root of the extravagance is an attempt to dominate the narrative, pitted in competition to go viral and awareness, rather than trying to sell a product. But the effect of competition is war.

“In the old days it was just the perfume brands that spent millions on production every Christmas with their cinematic extravaganzas,” says Mark Roalfe, chairman of RKCR/Y&R, who worked on the M&S campaigns for 14 years. But “now the high street has entered the fray and, as with Christmas presents, no one wants to look like the cheapskate.”

Social media plays a significant part in the Battle for Christmas. Although the ads are still broadcast relentlessly for two months, brands vie for virality; the battle lines are drawn on Facebook and Twitter. “The campaigns are more streamlined, tailored for the platform that they are living on. Brands are more interested in their marketing being like a laser guided missile rather than the old carpet bomb approach,” says Ryan Dean, creative director at R D Content.


But what makes a good Christmas ad? “Everyone can instantly find out the price and availability of a specific item by doing a simple online search so there is no need to talk about product,” says Dean. “Instead, Christmas is a chance for the brand to show the world what it stands for, with the hope being that the viewer will relate to those values and decide to buy their Christmas gifts in their store.”

Without the need for garish sell-heavy, product and price ads, brands have the chance to flex their creative muscles. “We know more about how advertising works than ever before,” says Bullmore. “And it turns out emotion sells. So advertisers have become masters at tweaking our emotions, playing us like a Christmas harp.”

“What John Lewis did was to demonstrate that you could sell without appearing to try to sell,” says Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer at Karmarama, who work on Iceland’s Christmas ads. “We live in an age of purpose rather than proposition, meaning that businesses are increasingly trying to figure out the role they play in a person’s life, rather than simply how to extract the maximum amount of money from them. Christmas is a perfect time of year to appear to be giving something a little bit more positive to people,” he adds.

Does it work?

It’s all very well arming yourself to the teeth with an poignant vignette to send a nation into a sobbing hysteria, but does it work? McGrath questions their infallibility: “if everyone in advertising has now read the same research that identifies that ‘fame’ and ‘emotional engagement’ lead to better returns, are brands truly differentiating themselves by all doing the same thing?

“If one or two retailers did it then yes. But now that it’s the price of entry to the Christmas market, I’m not sure. Perhaps it might be wiser for businesses not to leave these acts of advertising ‘good will’ solely to Christmas, but for brands to think about how they can build positivity across the whole year and across all interactions with their consumers.”

Who wins the war?

The battle, let’s face it, is between M&S and John Lewis. Sainsbury’s put up a good fight, Argos just doesn’t get it. But until a few years ago, says Roalfe, “M&S was alone in its ambition to take the Christmas crown. John Lewis has since learnt the lesson and picked up the mantle. Christmas advertising, like Christmas itself, has become a nationally shared experience in a world where there aren’t enough of them.”

Kolbusz adds that “no one is going to knock it out of the park every year, but as long as there’s evidence of the British public spending their hard-earned cash on such phenomena, brands will persist. You could liken it to Jaws’ effect on the film industry. After Spielberg crushed it in June of ‘75, every studio had to have their summer event picture.”

In the public mind, whoever wins the war depends mostly on quality, but Roalfe adds that “Christmas has become such a battleground mainly for financial reasons. A good Christmas sales period can define a brand’s end of year financial results, often representing 40 per cent of the year’s profits.”

No matter how good an ad, however, it won’t make up for poor product, he adds: “the public may love a good ad but they’re not that gullible.”

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