The UK’s Continued Tradition of Epic Holiday Ads

‘Tis the season for blockbuster advertising in the UK. Across the pond, December is akin to the Super Bowl when the biggest, best, most talked about campaigns premiere to much fanfare. Just as kids count down to Santa, the industry reaches a fever-pitch level of anticipation when it comes to these attention-grabbing campaigns. Buildups, teasers and educated guesses are all part of the pre-holiday fun.

“Holiday ad campaigns have become integral in the UK for a number of reasons,” Helen Powell, a professor of advertising at the University of East London, tells “They function as a reminder of a brand presence at a time of year when retail sales are at their highest. It is as though brands are trying to position themselves as being inextricably linked to Christmas.”

Coca-Cola was one of the first brands to jump on the holiday bandwagon more than 20 years ago, with its campaign of iconic red illuminate trucks that now mark the start of the holiday season each year. Along with that annual harbinger of festivity, “we have seen over the past 5 years a great degree of anticipation building over the release of the Christmas ads of major brands,” Powell says. “Circling Black Friday, they demarcate the arrival of the holiday season and a catalogue of consumer expectations associated with this time of year—thus they can carry and transmit a very strong emotional impact,”

What makes for a successful holiday smash? “It is about exuding the brand personality within the context of a particular retail sales window.  The ad must pack an emotional punch, be of high production values and allow for repeated viewings – specific qualities that television and cinema can convey.”

Below, see six remarkable 2016 advertisements that are evolving the spirit of sharing.

John Lewis’s “Buster the Boxer”

The department store now synonymous with Christmas releases some of the most highly anticipated holiday campaigns each year. Powell calls it the “pre-Christmas amble”—UK brands are successfully merging the spirit of gift giving with all the other feelings associated with the season. “John Lewis has managed to capture this spirit from the little boy who couldn’t wait to give a present to this year’s blockbuster of the trampoline and the boxer dog. The increasing ad spend, particularly in relation to TV campaigns, have turned them into media spectacles and an integral part of the entertainment economy,” she states. In other words, consumers are hungry for quality material—Buster the Boxer dog attracted about 50 million views in the first few days.  The annual ads are so widely recognized, this year The Drum tasked UK creatives with dreaming up their own versions of a John Lewis Christmas ad.

Burberry’s “The Life Of Thomas Burberry”

Three must-haves for a compelling holiday campaign: “The ad must pack an emotional punch, be of high production values and allow for repeated viewings,” according to Powell. Burberry’s three-minute film, a celebration of the spirit and vision of the man behind the trench coat to commemorate the brand’s 160th anniversary, emerges the viewer in Burberry’s heritage and values of authenticity, heritage and Britishness. “The goal here is to want to see it again and again so that it becomes part of a conversation: online and in store. The journey between production and consumption is complete when sales rise in store, but also when the ad is remembered and replayed,” Powell says.

Amazon Prime’s “A Priest and Imam Meet for a Cup of Tea”

In a time of cultural, political and religious divides, the ad chronicling a worn-out priest and imam sharing the same gift, a simple knee brace, shows that there is more that unites us than divides us. ”The themes of family, companionship and Christmas as a time of love seems to be the message that underpins 2016 end-of-year communication,” Powell notes.

Marks & Spencer’s “Mrs. Claus” 

The supermarket chain’s modern take on Santa’s wife had an equally contemporary distribution strategy aimed at Sparks cardholders—customers enrolled in its membership program. “What has become particularly noticeable this year is that many of these ads have been sent to loyal customers as a reward. They receive this privileged information first and thus are more likely to share, already being brand advocates,” Powell says.

Heathrow Airport’s “Coming Home for Christmas”

Perhaps a reflection of 2016’s turbulence, many of this year’s standout Christmas ads are emotionally charged. Powell notes this is “perhaps speaking to Christmas as a time of bringing people together when much of humanity is currently experiencing high degrees of displacement and conflict.” Case in point: With its elderly travelling teddy bears, London’s Heathrow Airport reminded passengers of the significance of the arrival lounge at this time of year.

McDonald’s “Juliette the Doll” 

I am particularly taken by the small solitary doll in the window of the toyshop opposite McDonald’s and how she turns the disappointment of not being chosen as a Christmas present by the customers who come into the shop as an opportunity to make her own destiny and create her own happiness,” Powell says. “She braves the ice and snow, crosses the street and enters a world of noise, laughter and companionship: the Christmas spirit in 30 seconds!”

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