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John Lewis

How this year’s Christmas ads are navigating the cost of living crisis

Christmas adverts have become a festive and highly competitive tradition. They are critiqued and compared, enjoyed and endured, and (retailers hope) viewed by millions of potential customers.

The amount retailers spend on Christmas marketing campaigns is significant, but not surprising. The season is a pivotal time in the retail calendar, with November and December accounting for more than 20% of the year’s revenue.

This means that every year, advertisers are under huge pressure to deliver something new and eye-catching that will pull on consumers’ heart strings – and make them spend money.

A key element of this is one of the classic goals of advertising: creating an emotional response. Research shows that advertising created around emotional appeals, especially during holidays and on special occasions, is considered more likeable and more memorable. And crucially, it drives consumer decision making.

During the seasonal period retailers often move away from the usual, year-round focus on cost savings in favour of generating a “Christmassy” feeling to encourage shoppers. But doing all of this in a cost of living crisis is perhaps an even greater challenge, when energy bills and food prices are putting a serious squeeze on household spending. So how are the UK’s big companies faring so far in 2022?

One media ranking this season places the advert from Boots in first place with its glitzy modern fairy tale, aimed at rejuvenating their beauty and personal care range. A woman finds a magical pair of glasses which, when worn, have the power to transform everyday wintry scenes into dazzling moments – and reveal what people are secretly wishing for.

On Christmas Day though, the glasses no longer work, because (spoiler alert) she has managed to supply everything her friends and family need by buying them presents from the high street chemist.

Ranked second is supermarket Waitrose, which tells the story of a year in the lives of British farmers, and feels reminiscent of key workers keeping the country going through the pandemic. It uses the popular advertising device of featuring real people to create resonance with the audience. At the same time it is attempting to create appeal by boasting of the quality and provenance of the food it sells.

The ad getting my vote though, is placed third: department store John Lewis’s tale of a man trying, failing and trying again to learn to skateboard as he prepares to become a foster parent.

The familiar moral trope of persistence unfolds over 90 seconds as consumers’ responses of sympathy and empathy are deployed to stimulate a positive response. At the end of the story, there’s an even bigger feel-good moment, when it is revealed that John Lewis has developed a partnership with charities working with young people in care.

This kind of emotional engagement – even at the expense of showcasing products altogether – is at the heart of most advertising campaigns this Christmas. Businesses seem acutely aware that at a time of global emergencies and economic uncertainty, they must work even harder to remain relevant and trustworthy to advertising-savvy consumers.

After all, research suggests that consumers are more likely be drawn to brands that share, or are aligned with, their own values and goals. John Lewis’ Christmas campaign gets the tone right by using the investment in expensive media space to raise awareness of the societal problem of children in care.

When we buy products, or even enjoy an advertising campaign, we develop a sense of meaning about our place in the world. So when we engage and connect (spend money) with brands that we trust, it gives us a sense of wellbeing.

Socially responsible shopping

Beyond Christmas, this kind of relationship can be useful where consumers respond to broader issues, such as how we treat the environment. For although the majority of consumers describe themselves as being worried about climate change, they do not always feel able to act on such concerns when they buy things.

There are many factors which may prevent people from buying sustainable products, from quality concerns to peer perceptions, and value for money. There are also hidden social stereotypes that characterise social-consciousness and environmentalism as “unmanly”, stopping men from seeking out eco-friendly products.

But evidence suggests that one solution is for brands to normalise sustainability and social inclusion by putting relevant, meaningful issues front and centre of their advertising campaigns. Having a “brand purpose” related to social responsibility is no longer just for the likes of well established eco brands like Patagonia or Tom’s Shoes.

Read more: Why the John Lewis Christmas advert makes me angry

Budweiser for example, has recently established a partnership with a personal safety app designed to help people get home safely after a night out. Ikea has made moves towards greater sustainability with an initiative which allows customers to sell their old furniture back to the company to be resold.

These companies, like John Lewis with its charity partnership, have understood the moral argument for brands to do social good. But they have also understood the solid business case which goes with it.

Consumers want to trust companies to make a positive difference, as well as giving them products they desire and value. Providing an authentic brand purpose allows customers to feel socially responsible while they tick off the items on their shopping list.

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