14 Nov 2023

UK retailers fail to ‘sleigh’ 2023’s Christmas communications efforts

Written by Joe Jordan, Senior Account Executive at Spreckley

With the embers of the final bonfires barely extinguished, perhaps a little prematurely, UK retailers decided it was time to unleash this year’s deluge of Christmas ads − I still hadn’t got round to taking down the Halloween decorations when John Lewis’ festive flytrap appeared on my screen for the first time.

And perhaps our viral hopefuls could have used a couple of weeks to produce some slightly more compelling content. Let’s be honest, while there are some nice touches here and there, for the most part the latest batch of ads fail to capture the magic of their predecessors (the one where the boy can’t wait to give his parents their present gets me every time).

However, the fact that pretty much every 2023 festive ad made sure to keep things conventional and not venture too far into unchartered territory is very telling in itself. With what’s felt like a very apocalyptic year – from the rise of AI all the way through to the return of Cameron – are retailers trying to shield us from further distress with the most vanilla round of Christmas ads to date?

Has Rick Astley finally let us down?

There were a host of famous faces on show this year, with Gen Z very much shelved for a few millennial/boomer favourites – I’m looking at you, Astley. This indicates that nostalgia is very much the flavour of the festive season, as retailers are reluctant to do the talking themselves and have instead taken the easy route of hiding behind well-known public figures.

While there was something strangely comforting about seeing Michael Bublé chow down on a few pigs in blankets, the Asda employee who came up with the slogan ‘Incredibublé’ and decided that should be the basis for an entire Christmas ad should maybe consider a change of industry.

The point is, I felt like Sainsbury’s Astley ad and Asda’s Bublé bonanza overly relied on household names to do the work rather than the brands themselves considering how they should tell their story. The most powerful, moving and memorable communications efforts have a clear message, and you get a sense that this is missing when celebrity endorsement becomes the central theme.

There’s another potential reason why retailers opted for a more experienced cast of celebs to lead the way (Dawn French, Graham Norton and Sophie Ellis-Bextor all made cameos, as well as Bublé and Astley).

The bulk of media discourse this year has focused on AI and futuristic tech, and perhaps the supermarkets were looking to steer the conversation in a new direction that households could find some familiarity and comfort in. Christmas is certainly no time for talk of robot revolutions, so a throwback or two isn’t unwelcome.

Put away the tissues

With each advert that came and went, my disappointment grew as I longingly awaited the tearjerker that I’d be re-watching on YouTube a decade later. John Lewis took it slightly left field but went for whimsical rather than downright emotional, while there was a slightly surrealist edge to seeing Ryan Reynolds reanimated as a reindeer mitten in M&S’s offering

But perhaps comms teams up and down the country decided we’d had enough emotional turbulence for one year. After all, it’s (almost) Christmas.

Where’s the Christmas spirit?

Reading this back, I’ve realised that I sound a bit like the offspring of Scrooge and the Grinch. Am I being overly critical?

The truth is, it’s easy to feel nostalgic for past favourites, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in this year’s offerings (yes, that’s another shoutout to Bublé and his pigs in blankets).

And what’s wrong with an early November Christmas ad? The fact that retailers go above and beyond each year to produce engaging content should be applauded, so maybe it’s time I stop complaining and don my Christmas jumper a few weeks early instead.