The (Commercial) Meaning of Christmas


The nation held a collective baited breath. Weeks, if not months of waiting had come down to this. It was a pivotal moment for the country, and one upon which so much hope and anticipation was riding – the risk of disappointment was enormous. Finally, at last, here it was….


The John Lewis Christmas ad premiered on television.


And the result? A huge outpouring of delight across traditional and online media. The advert became the story itself – and even reached my news feed from Italian and American news forums which I follow. It was a story with a happy ending: the world might be going to hell in a handcart but thank goodness the retail giant had delivered a suitably heart-warming commercial.


The John Lewis ad isn’t alone and the other big retailers are also proudly showing off their glitzy or thought-provoking, uplifting or moving adverts which can’t help but make people feel good. The festive spirit is in abundance.


Now, here’s the thing, and at risk of being named and shamed as a social pariah – I find the whole Christmas ad thing a little…odd. Whilst undeniably creative tours de force, mini movies which can make us smile or laugh or cry – indeed the Sainsbury’s one from a few years ago which was set in No Man’s Land made me sob – I feel a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. And I guess my discomfort can be summed up thus: here we have huge, commercial businesses, spending vast amounts of money in an effort to encourage us to spend vast amounts of money with them – and in the process, they are laying claim to being our moral conscience.


Since when did we start looking to these massive retailers to set the tone for Christmas, to remind us of the true nature of the season? Which they do. And they do it well – as anyone who saw the heartbreaking German advert last year which showed how a grandfather had to pretend to die just to get his family to come to him for Christmas lunch. The ad, which looked like a trailer for a Hollywood movie, was actually an ad campaign for a supermarket chain.


For whatever reason, these companies, with their powerful, evocative ad campaigns now occupy a unique position in the run up to Christmas. We are looking to them to take a festive lead, and to remind us just what ‘it’s all about.’ But with such a position comes great responsibility. And I think that these retailers have a great opportunity to make even more of an impact than they already do.


Because here’s a radical idea: if they truly want to take a lead, to make a difference then why not ditch the glitzy advertising and instead contribute a large percentage of the ad budget to charity? Why not invest in community projects or activities which can benefit many, many people in a sustainable way, leaving a legacy long after the last piece of turkey has been eaten, months after the decorations have been packed away for another year? What an incredible message to send out – and we need this now, more than ever. The country is divided, there are millions of people who could never afford to shop at M & S for their Christmas lunch or House of Fraser for a handbag for mum. But running a cheaper ad campaign and donating to charity a big proportion instead could be much more inclusive, much more meaningful – and could bring this divided nation together under the true spirit of Christmas. I don’t shop in any store because of an ad – but I would purposefully shop in a store if it made a stand in this way.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Scrooge at all and I do enjoy many of these Christmas commercials. I do recognise that the remit of these ads goes well beyond a more traditional ad – and I am aware what a lift Buster the Boxer gave a day after the shocking US election results. I am also well aware that many of the retailers donate to charity through their Christmas campaigning – for example, Sainsbury’s sold chocolate bars with profits going to the Royal British Legion. Yet, I think these influential organisations have a real opportunity. And how incredible would it be if these retailers used the power they have in a slightly different way to benefit many, many more people. That, for me, would be a true example to us all.

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