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Penguins, Truces and Mince Pies


Brand psychology expert Jonathan Gabay discusses the annual high street brands’ Christmas TV advertising spectaculars.

Only a few weeks now until you can finally escape the tetanus-inducing, non-stop Mazak performances of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’ and Wizard’s ‘I wish It Could be Xmas Everyday’ being blasted out in Starbucks.

Soon the nightmare visions of watching your boss dancing at the office Christmas party will fade. You’ll go home, put your feet up, balance one more mince pie on the side of the armchair, relax and watch Xmas television (which, according to reports, this year promises to feature at least sixty-three per cent of repeats).

We are also approaching the finishing stages of the annual high street brands’ Christmas TV advertising spectaculars.

2014’s most hyped-up launch campaign came from John Lewis. Perhaps reflecting the brand’s ideal demographic, it featured a middle class (notably white) family, city-based dwelling, young boy and …a penguin called Monty.

A survey of 2,002 adults commissioned by Opinium Research between November 21 and 25 revealed that six in ten viewers (fifty-five per cent) remembered the ad featuring Monty the Welsh ‘white-head’. . Thirty-nine per cent ranked it their favourite when shown a list of brands and their Christmas campaigns.
Assumedly, the respondents didn’t feel the sight of an approximately aged nine-year-old boy playing with stuffed animal toys rather than Xbox or PlayStation game, was a touch incongruous. (These were probably the sort who also bought John Lewis personalised Christmas cards as advertised by the store online for up to £365).

Whilst John Lewis’ offering may have been the most ‘hyped’ commercial launch, Sainsbury’s contribution was the most controversial. Recalled by fifty-two per cent of those polled, it featured a take on the famous World War One Christmas trenches story (When British and German soldiers momentarily postponed hostilities to exchange seasonal gifts, play an impromptu game of football then return to slaughtering each other. In John Lewis’ version they just had time to take a satisfying bite from a Sainsbury’s chocolate bar, before ducking the bullets).

The general view on the commercial was split by ages. Twenty-one per cent of those aged 65 and over felt Sainsbury’s had sullied the solemnity of memory of those killed in The Great War. On the other hand, thirty-six per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds chose it as their favourite. In my own findings, many advertising agency executives anointed the commercial a masterpiece.

As is now the norm, none of the major Christmas campaigns featured any traditional religious theming (Articulated Coca-Cola lorries don’t count). This trend reflected recent surveys from the Office of National Statistics, which pointed out that a quarter of the population of England and Wales practice no religion. Four in ten of such people are aged under 25, and four in five are under 50.

From a psychological perspective, each year Christmas becomes an ever-sharper double-edged sword for brands. On one hand, commercials are designed with promises of idealized expectations: perfect family Xmas meals, Dickensian Christmas streets, dainty fairies… all focusing on a picture-book poignancy, rather than spirituality evoked by the occasion.

Following many aspects of consumerism, the commercials tend to leave a feeling of déjà vu and despondency. (Rather like the repetitive programmes broadcast either side of the commercials, and stale mince pies). If it really does all get too much, this season, you could always attempt another escape - this time at Starbucks on Boxing Day, joining those with any money credit left over after Black Friday and Manic Monday screaming theirs order for a latte over the din of Dina Carroll’s ‘Perfect Year’.

About the author: Jonathan Gabay is a creative strategist, educator and writer. His career spans three decades, during which time he has won various creative accolades and held several major advertising and marketing roles, including that of Group Creative Head at Saatchi and Saatchi Direct. He has worked with some of the most respected names in the world of creative advertising, marketing, PR, the media and education. Jonathan's books are featured throughout academia, his copywriting has won awards and his business insights are regularly sought by news media including CNN, ABC, BBC and Bloomberg. His new book, Brand Psychology: Consumer Perceptions, Corporate Reputations, is now available for pre-order.