The festive period carries many traditions, from the switching on of the Christmas tree lights to office parties (well, maybe not this year). But the season’s advertising perhaps defines our view of what feels Christmassy just as much as advent calendars, pine needles and the ordeal of secret santa shopping.
We've seen some brilliant examples in 2020, from Doc Morris's beautiful ad to John Lewis's artistic extravaganza. But these are just the latest in a long-running tradition of festive showstoppers. Here we look at ten of the best, from the simple but enduring Hershey’s Kisses Christmas Bells to Sainsbury’s 2014 cinematic depiction of the 1914 Christmas truce. And for more striking adverts in a very different medium, check out our favourite ever print ads.
01. Christmas Bells – Hershey’s Kisses (1989)
Running for three decades now, Hershey’s Kisses’ Christmas Bells advert by Ogilvy has lasted so well thanks to the sheer simplicity of the idea. The ad shows Christmas coloured foil-wrapped chocolates playing the tune of We Wish You a Merry Christmas and so capitalising on the chocolate brand’s popularity as a stocking filler in the US.
In 2012, the ad was updated with CGI animation and a new recording of the audio, and it’s even proved perfectly adaptable to social media, with the brand last year giving the public the chance to 'play the bells' themselves and record their own melodies using different sound effects, from cowbells to DJ horns, and then share the results on Instagram Stories. Festive merriment for all!
02. Mistletoe by Yellow Pages (1992)
Can this really have been 27 years ago? This AMVBBDO-created icon of 1990s advertising delivers a short but sweet dose of yuletide nostalgia and made such a lasting impression that Dean Cooke, the then six-year-old child actor who plays the boy who reaches for a phone book in order to be able to kiss a girl under the mistletoe, says he still gets recognised in the street. A piece that felt warm and nostalgic at the time feels even more so now that the phone books feels like an arcane relic from the Dark Ages.
03. Holidays are coming – Coca-Cola (1995)
Some consider Coca-cola to have all but invented the Christmas ad if not Christmas itself, and while we wouldn’t go that far, it was certainly one of the first brands whose ads became an event recognised as a greater harbinger of the festive season than chestnuts roasting or Slade being played in every high street shop.
The brand already had form – see this 1971 Christmas version of its famous hilltop singalong – but it was the arrival of the trucks in this 1995 ad by WB Doner that truly enshrined its association with Christmas and created a motif on which it could capitalise endlessly, even bringing the trucks into city centres to the delight of Christmas shoppers.
04. This is not just – Marks and Spencer (2006)
Unlike the tearjerkers that came later in the decade, there’s no deep and worthy message here. By simply showing seductive slow motion close ups of festive dishes with a voiceover that seems to have been intended to produce ASMR before it became a thing, the ad revels in the pure hedonistic enjoyment of posh Christmas food, unashamedly recognising eating as one of the most important elements of the festive season.
The Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R campaign with its iconic strapline 'This is not just...,' pioneered the concept of food porn long before the Instagram age and left enough of an impression in the collective memory to serve for a tongue-in cheek revival this year.
05. Phenomenal Christmas – Irn Bru (2007)
You have to be careful about messing with such a much-loved treasure of Christmas tradition as Raymond Brigg’s magical classic The Snowman, but The Leith Agency’s cheeky reworking for Scotland’s top selling soft drink gets the tone just right.
The snowman, outraged when the little boy won't share his Irn Bru with him, steals the can and lets go of the boy’s hand in a piece that’s completed with local references, with the duo flying over landmarks such as the Falkirk Wheel, the Forth Bridge, and Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. It’s respectful and irreverent in just the right measure, like an expertly dosed mulled wine.
06. El Color Reserva – Freixenet (2008)
Audiences outside of Spain may not be familiar with Friexenet’s advertising – the 158-year-old cava brand only made its UK TV advertising debut this year – but across the Bay of Biscay, its Christmas commercials have been hotly anticipated annual events since way back in 1977.
This 2008 JWT-produced spot directed by British music video director Howard Greenhalgh replaced international celebs (previous years’ ads had starred Demi Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Pierce Brosnan and Penelope Cruz) with Spain’s synchronised swimming team fresh from medal-winning success at the Beijing Olympics, celebrating the joy of drinking bubbly with something that felt fresh, festive and unmistakably Spanish.
07. The Long Wait - John Lewis (2011)
It might already feel like a Christmas tradition that goes as far back as stockings, crackers and ridiculous jumpers, but John Lewis only launched its first Christmas ad in 2007. Since then the department store’s festive offerings have become something of a British national tradition, often aiming to produce as many tears as It’s a Wonderful Life. They do so via stirring emotional denouements backed by slowed-down cover versions of well-known songs, setting records for Christmas ad budgets in the process.
This 2014 ad by Adam&Eve DDB begins with a young boy impatiently waiting for Christmas. Reinforced by the lyrics of Slow Moving Millie’s cover of Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths, we imagine he’s desperate for his presents, but on Christmas morning, he ignores his own gifts and rushes to deliver a present to his sleeping parents. With the strapline 'For Gifts you can’t wait to give,' it firmly puts the focus on the giving rather than the receiving.
08. 1914 by Sainsbury's (2014)
The mid 2010s saw Sainsbury’s go head to head with John Lewis in a battle to create the most sentimental Christmas tearjerker and this was one of the most epic. Inspired by real events that took place 100 years earlier, the simple narrative tells the well-known story of Christmas Day 1914 when around 100,000 combatants laid down arms to socialise and play football on the Western Front.
Made together with The Royal British Legion, this advert by AMV BBDO did more than advertise a supermarket, with profits from the sale of a chocolate bar going to the charity, which provides support for members and veterans of the armed forces and their families.
09. Special Because - Boots (2014)
High street pharmacy and retailer Boots also joined the battle in 2014 by switching its usual festive fare to a more emotional offering from Mother that celebrates the work of the UK’s National Health Service staff. A mum is surprised by her family after a long Christmas day shift at the hospital in an ad with sterling direction and an attention to realistic, humble, perhaps even gloomy details, that make it immediately relatable to much of its audience. Those details also make it feel traditional but modern at the same time.
10. English for Beginners – Allegro (2016)
Christmas can be a lonely time, particularly for older people and a flurry of adverts sought to highlight the issue at around the same time. John Lewis had taken it on with its Man on the Moon the previous year and in Germany, supermarket Edeka took a harsher approach with the slightly guilt-inducing Heimkommen (Homecoming).
Polish e-commerce platform Allegro tackled the topic with winning humour in Bardzo’s story of an elderly man teaching himself English to be able to communicate with the granddaughter he’s going to meet for the first time when he visits his son in London for Christmas. Although the brand is little known outside of Poland, the universal humour and reality of families living across borders made it a hit on social media in many countries.
BONUS: The Miracle Ham – Aldi, Australia (2019)
As a bonus, something from this year’s crop. We’ve already declared our love for IKEA’s first-ever offering, with its hip-hop tune, but another favourite has to be Aldi Australia’s The Miracle Ham by BMF. We love seeing a take on Christmas from the southern hemisphere and the ever so slightly bonkers idea of a magic never-ending ham bringing people together offers some welcome light relief. There’s no snow, reindeer or Santas, but a fun message about community, while surely we can all relate to the lady who’s driven to throw Christmas dinner off a cliff in a fit of pique.