Are Christmas ads losing their sparkle?

Yet again the communications world is obsessing over Christmas advertising. The unveiling of the John Lewis ad has become a new ritual in festive communications, yet while the creative genius that goes into the Christmas commercials may win advertising awards, it’s not all good will in the boardroom.

More than 17 million people watched Sainsbury’s emotional WW1 football game ad last year on YouTube, and yet the company ended the Christmas period posting the first fall in festive sales for more than a decade. Similarly, Marks & Spencer’s Christmas commercial was the fourth most watched in 2014 and yet in the run up to the season they turned in what one analyst called a ‘dismal set of figures’.

This year, the chart topper is once again John Lewis with its Man in the Moon, watched by a staggering six million people online in only the first 24 hours. At a reported cost of £7 million, the campaign isn’t cheap but it resulted in a 25 point lift in advertising awareness in just five days.

Yet that ringing endorsement isn’t necessarily reflected in ringing tills. Advertising tracking has shown almost no increase in purchase consideration for John Lewis during the launch period. Channel Mum research also suggested while the ad may be the ‘emotional’ favourite, Aldi’s more product-focused Favourite Things had the biggest impact on purchase intent amongst mums.

Of course, the adverts are not just focused on generating immediate sales. John Lewis has taken the decision this year to promote a charitable message in its ad, supporting Age UK’s campaign against loneliness at Christmas. The hope is presumably that the huge awareness of the campaign will not only raise money for the charity but will grow John Lewis’ reputation in the process.

However, there are some reputational risks to this strategy too. As Christmas ads become ever more imaginative, their cost grows as well, running the risk of undermining their seasonal message. Channel Mum revealed that almost half of their respondents felt John Lewis spent too much on the advert and that the money would probably have been better spent going straight to charity.

Companies would do well to learn the lessons of those advertising during the US Super Bowl. Just like here at Christmas, the Super Bowl is one of the rare occasions when advertising is actually looked for. With 100 million people watching the game, the slots aren’t cheap – a 30 second ad can cost between $4 and $5 million – but the perceived benefits are massive.

Except that research consistently points to there being low long-term recall of Super Bowl ads and little increase in purchase intention. The ad market is so crowded during the game that people’s attention spans are becoming more limited and although individual ads can increase favourability, they aren’t translating into sales dollars.

So what’s going wrong? US Super Bowl researchers Communicus believe advertisers have become so obsessed with what will win entertainment plaudits that they have lost sight of the role of the brand in the commercial.

They believe in many cases companies could have had greater impact by investing their money in a longer-term campaign to build brand awareness, rather than a dramatic one-off ad.

Of course, this is pretty much the approach taken by Coca-Cola. Their annual Christmas adverts track the journey of the Coca-Cola trucks that mark the beginning of the holidays. Hardly Oscar-worthy material, perhaps, but the campaign does offer a simple and consistent message which relates directly to the brand and one people anticipate, recall and like.

It may be this is the beginning of the end of the one-off festive ad blockbuster. Perhaps in future we will see less costly Christmas commercials which don’t try just to tug on the heart strings and instead provide a festive feast to remind us why we love the brand. This way, the ads will bring seasonal good will to all shoppers and some Christmas cheer in the boardroom too.

This article first appeared in issue 101