A Venus Fly Trap. Have Christmas adverts finally jumped the shark?

Can’t say we are great fans of this year’s John Lewis Christmas ad, and it’s definitely not going to make us rush to the store to buy all our festive goodies, but it has done one thing. It’s prompted debate. What exactly has a Venus Fly Trap to do with Christmas? Is it about teaching us that being different at such a traditional time of year is completely acceptable? Or is it about compassion and love, with the family eventually accepting that the little boy just wants the Venus Fly Trap as his tree even though they think it’s decidedly odd.

Personally, we think the answer is a lot simpler.  John Lewis is just trying way too hard.  Think about it. Their ad covers mis-selling at a Christmas market (not something that ever happens!), the family pet is almost killed, they reject this poor plant by throwing it uncaringly into the garden, and then when they do come round, it spews presents at them.

We can’t help thinking this is an example of Christmas adverts finally jumping the shark. But how did we get to this point? Unsurprisingly, John Lewis is partly to blame.

Christmas ads used to sell products

2007 was John Lewis’s first Christmas ad which set out to tell a story in an interesting and cinematic way with The Shadow focusing on people finding the perfect gift for their loved ones.

Interestingly, this ad focuses very much on their products, as over the last few years a common complaint of the John Lewis Christmas adverts is they rarely show anything they sell. And in some ways, it represents a segue between ads of old and the ones of today.

Take this one from Woolworths in 1982. It still has a clear Christmas theme, but it’s all about the range of products they sell as showcased by stars of the day. Anyone for a pack of 5 cassettes?!

And the same goes for WHSmith’s whose 1996 Christmas ad perfectly shows exactly what they have in store.

And what these ads also show is the price. Nowadays, it’s rare for this to be a feature of Christmas adverts with even supermarkets, whose ads tend to be more product-driven, shying away from how much it’s all going to cost.

And now focus on eliciting emotion

And part of the reason for the lack of price is thanks to that 2007 John Lewis Christmas ad other companies quickly jumped on the storytelling bandwagon all with the aim of eliciting an emotional response from their target consumers.

Take Boots’ change in approach as an example. This ad from the 1980s focused very much on the range of products they offer and the fact you can buy everything in one place.

Jump forward to this year, and we see a mum and daughter rushing to the North Pole to give Father Christmas a present. Their aim is to encourage everyone to #GiveJoy and show their appreciation for others. It’s a much more emotionally charged ad, which like many Christmas ads these days focuses on love, kindness and thinking of others. But for goodness’s sake, wrap the presents!!

To be honest, we are the first ones to say,  if you want to make advertising memorable, you should focus on creating an emotional response. But has it gone too far when it comes to Christmas ads? We think it might.

In the rush to be the winner in the Christmas ad stakes and to become the talk of the nation, brands are too busy trying to outdo each other.

Sainsbury’s Nicholas the Sweep from 2019 obviously took a leaf out of the John Lewis Christmas playbook with an epic story of Sainsbury’s first store which opened in 1869 but quite frankly misses the mark,

while this one from Morrisons in 2012, whilst it’s undoubtedly trying to connect with people by sympathising that Christmas can be hard work, it’s actually just really depressing (not to mention sexist!)

And you really have to question their creative direction when an ad from a bar in Enniskillen creates more emotional resonance than all the big brands put together. And when John Lewis says it’s good, you know it’s good.

More simpler times

Of course, the changing nature of Christmas adverts reflects not just how advertising has transformed over the last few decades, but also how society has evolved. It’s good ads are now more representative and reflect the diverse relationships and experiences of our society. And we have to say the backlash against the John Lewis ad not featuring any men was grossly unfair.

But given Christmas can be emotional enough already, do we really need brands to pour more emotion into the mix?  And as for their creative ideas! What with singing oven gloves from Morrisons, ducks, llamas and goats in designer clothes from TK Maxx, and Michael Bublé as Chief Quality Officer at Asda, it feels like mediocrity isn’t just imminent, it’s already here!

And let’s face it. When every year people say that because of some ad or another ‘Christmas is ruined’ maybe it’s time to go back to more simpler concepts.

And, of course, there is something else the ads of yesteryear all get right – they actually use the word Christmas!