OPINION4 December 2017

The Great British Christmas advert: adapting the fable

Media Opinion Retail UK

Christmas ads are losing the fable structure that has become central to the genre and captured the national imagination in the past, write Flamingo’s Cecily Long and Josh Jordan. 

John lewis_Christmas_the long wait_crop

The Great British Christmas Advert – a relatively recent cultural phenomenon kicked off in earnest by John Lewis with ‘The Long Wait’ in 2011 (pictured) – has had a mixed year.

Though more brands than ever have splurged budgets on entering the race, no single advert has captured the national imagination like ‘The Bear and the Hare’ (John Lewis, 2013 ), ‘Christmas is for sharing’ (Sainsbury’s 2014 ), ‘The Greatest Gift’ (Sainsbury’s, 2016 ) or ‘Mrs Claus’ (M&S, 2016 ) have done in previous years.

We’d argue that this is because 2017’s crop are failing to meet the core criteria of what makes a successful Christmas ad. The Christmas Advert is now a distinctive genre, with specific attributes that go far deeper than superficial signifiers of Christmas – snowmen, robins, family meals etc. People expect Christmas adverts to work on a specific narrative level.

All the most successful Christmas ads since ‘The Long Wait’ work as fables. Fables are succinct, uncomplicated stories that illustrate or lead to a moral lesson (Christmas is for sharing, Christmas is about family, Christmas is about acknowledging the ones you love, etc). Elements of fantasy regularly feature – characters are often anthropomorphised animals or objects – and moral ambiguity is rejected in favour of clear cut messages of morality.

Successful ads also have a distinct aesthetic that uses British codes of the sentimental fable – think Richard Curtis’ Love Actually or Aardman animations – which crucially balance a slightly mawkish sentimentality with a shrewdly self-aware humour.

There are three elements that are therefore fundamental to the ‘British Christmas fable’ format:

  • The finding of a grand moral allegory within smaller, more specific stories
  • The sense that something is morally at stake: followed by a moral resolution or lesson
  • Moral simplicity and sincerity, balanced with a gentle humour

Understandably, this feels like a stale formula, especially since the Christmas ad battleground has become increasingly crowded. However, we’d argue that many of this year’s Christmas ads are throwing the baby out with the bath water, and losing the fundamental fable structure that has become so central to the genre.

In fact, we’ve identified three main ‘buckets’ of Christmas adverts this year.

1 ) The toothless fable

Here are adverts that adopt the fable narrative structure, but miss crucial elements of the story: crucially, there seems to be nothing morally at stake in these adverts, and it isn’t clear what the moral lesson is.

2 ) The big-budget visual spectaculars

Here, brands adopt the cinematic and quasi-magical qualities of Christmas ads, but they don’t use the fable structure. Instead, they are set-piece CGI spectacles – centred around wonder and enchantment, but without a moral core or climax, and without any sense of smallness; that is, there’s no engagement with the idea of the real, the rooted or the everyday.

3 ) Christmas realism

Finally, there’s the complete rejection of the format in favour of under-production and a return to documenting the reality of most people’s Christmases, often complete with humour. But just as the moral core is central to Christmas advertising, so is the magic. In fact, it’s the interplay of the magic and the everyday – the transformation of the mundane into something magical and also moral – that’s at the heart of the Christmas ad format.

So, what next for the Christmas ad? We believe the continued evolution of the format will depend on creatives’ ability to adapt the fable format for the future: finding a moral resolution that feels true to the contemporary meaning of Christmas; a wry self-awareness that taps into contemporary Christmas practices; and a balance of the everyday with the magical.

Fundamentally, Christmas is a time when we find larger meaning within smaller things – and that’s a format that can be endlessly reinvented.