Art of Advertising

The festive psychology behind Christmas TV advertising

The science of making us watch... and then spend.

Christmas is traditionally a time for giving. And for most of us, giving means buying – the perfect excuse for major retailers to conduct an advertising assault that pulls on our heart strings and empties our pockets.

Seasonal TV adverts are usually full of signs and symbols playing on our subconscious, and so far 2016 is no different. But this year, the adverts are a little less traditional, and some, perhaps, even have a political undertone.

Political animals

This year John Lewis and its sister company Waitrose, both feature animals as main characters in their Christmas adverts. Most people consciously try not to be seduced by advertising, so using animals is a great way to get people’s defences down as they simply see a cute dog or robin. As they focus on the animal, they unknowingly process the rest of the message, ensuring it will be remembered.

Interestingly, in these cases, there are arguably subtle echoes of the uncertainty felt over Brexit. The John Lewis advert, for example, centres on Buster the Boxer. Buster is a name which can refer to things being broken, or notable in a positive manner, and hence could reflect the division felt across the UK regarding Brexit. The advert is filled with plenty of British “cues” – an archetypal British townhouse, a British phone box, and British wild animals – to prompt the viewer to subconsciously connect with the material based on feelings of nationality and home.

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Jumping on a garden trampoline, the woodland creatures are initially cautious of one another, but soon enjoy playing together. The message here appears to be that we need to overcome our cautiousness and embrace those we may view as different. It’s a touching scene.

The John Lewis advert also stars, for the first time, a black family, a clear nod to Britain’s diversity. This is set to Randy Crawford singing “One day I’ll fly away, leave all this to yesterday”, suggesting that we can leave the political uncertainty behind us – at least for as long as it takes to order some John Lewis merchandise.

“Coming Home”, Waitrose’s advert, tells the story of a robin returning home to Britain from colder climes. It’s a difficult journey, one that almost costs him his life. Luckily, he makes it back in time to feast on a mince pie with a friend.

The journey’s message is that it can be worth experiencing hardship in order to achieve your goals – in this case, to be in Britain. It also apparently mirrors predictions that Britain is going to be in for a financially difficult time as we leave the EU. The size of the bird perhaps symbolises that something small (Britain) can be strong when faced with big “adversaries”.

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Piggy backing on existing strong emotions is a great way to ensure that adverts are remembered – and to make people feel connected with their messages.

The feminism Claus

In their plush advert, Marks and Spencer have made a stylish middle-aged Mrs Claus the star of the show. She packs off her husband on his sleigh with several reminders before she travels by snowmobile and helicopter to deliver a late Christmas request.

Leading up to the presidential election in the US, debates about feminism were at the centre of global affairs. The M&S advert has apparently embraced this debate without alienating traditional values.

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Mrs Claus both supports her husband and makes a difference in her own right. Making a beautiful middle-aged woman the key character will appeal to their most loyal customer base, which tends to be middle-aged women. However, it is recognised that some may not appreciate the modern take on Santa. So the advert finishes with a mother and father raising their eyebrows as they read the message on the present, which reads: “Dear Anna, love Mrs Claus”.

Wholesome values

Sainsbury’s animated advert “The Greatest Gift”, stars a father who is struggling to get everything done in time for Christmas. Inspired by a gingerbread man that looks like him, he heads to a toy factory to make replicas of himself. He sends the replicas to places he needs to be, including work, to ensure that he will instead be home with his family. The result is a happy family Christmas.

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It is a lovely advert with a great message; that family counts during the festive season. Plus, with the added aim of raising money for Great Ormond Street Hospital, it is clear that Sainsbury’s want the message to reflect how they’d like customers to view them, as a store with core values that is there to help.

Christmas stuffing

Morrisons and Asda have gone for a more basic approach in 2016. Morrisons focus on the role of food. Their advert shows a young boy shopping for festive supplies while determinedly revising for a game of Trivial Pursuit with his Grandad on Christmas day.

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And even though Asda has opted for several short clips rather than one Christmas advert, they are more traditional in feel than the other Christmas adverts. One features a child who needs to decide whether to behave in order to get the toys on her Christmas wish list. Another simply shows family and friends having dinner around a very long table, passing around plates filled with food.

Both supermarkets use the ingredients of happy family values, festive food, and seasonal music to ensure that consumers associate them with the key aspects of Christmas.

Competing against woodland animals and Mrs Claus, they may not be the adverts that stay in our minds. The question is whether the more creative adverts have done enough to ensure that consumers know what they are advertising.

For example, people I spoke to who have seen the Sainsbury’s advert failed to recall which supermarket had made it – including its own staff working at the till in my local store. With so many adverts on the market, it is key to ensure that the brand is featured clearly throughout. And even though this is not the case in the adverts for John Lewis and Waitrose, they are much more likely to be remembered – simply by building on already existing deep-seated emotions.

Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, Reader in Consumer Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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