Does the classic Christmas ad need rethinking?

It’s that time of year again, as people up and down the country get their first glimpse of this year’s Christmas adverts. These highly-anticipated ads bring a welcome distraction from the monotony of the year and gently move us into the embrace of the festive season.

2021 has been no exception, as several leading brands have already showcased their holiday offerings… 

John Lewis

For many, John Lewis is the benchmark for all Christmas ads in any given year. This year’s effort is everything you’d anticipate from them – a heartwarming story, loveable fictional characters and a goosebump-inducing soundtrack.

However, this ad has faced a fair amount of backlash and apathy in comparison to their previous offerings. A quick scan through their YouTube comments showcases this sentiment:

  • Nothing will ever beat (insert previous ad here)
  • I didn’t get any Christmas vibes from the advert
  • It was formulaic and melodramatic

Whether it is a case of previous years setting the bar too high, or the ad didn’t encapsulate the Christmas spirit as John Lewis has in the past, their 2021 contribution is undoubtedly polarising.


Boots leaned on a touch of celebrity for their advert, telling the story of Jenna Coleman and her magical #BagOfJoy, gifted to her by her nan.

It is a whimsical story that stays completely on the Christmas message, with Jenna using her infinite bag of gifts to treat her friends and family, with the final heart-tugging scene of her giving her nan her own gift.

Again, a scroll through the YouTube comments puts the spotlight on one word – ‘lovely’. That’s the Boots ad in a nutshell, a sentimental, traditional and uplifting tale.


Meanwhile, the M&S 2021 Christmas ad hones in on humour by bringing lovable character Percy Pig to life.

With great voice-over work by Tom Holland and Dawn French, this ad sees Percy revel in his first Christmas, with Dawn’s fairy showing him all of the delicious food on offer this year (conveniently skipping any pork products!)

While significantly shorter than the other two, this injection of humour and the adorable characters will be sure to capture the imagination of many.

The making of a classic Christmas advert

As these three distinct ads demonstrate, every year the stories that brands tell battle it out to become the one that resonates most with the general public.

But often the bid to stand out ends with very similar outputs. While Coca-Cola’s ‘Holidays are coming’ stands firmly in a category of its own, many other brands fall into the trap of producing repetitive narratives and production styles that have left the iconic Christmas ad format feeling a little tired and formulaic, such as:

  • An adorable protagonist
  • An acoustic cover of a well-known pop song
  • An unexpectedly touching ending
  • An accompanying product range for said protagonist
  • An original strapline to tie it all together

Many would argue John Lewis’s 2021 effort fits firmly in these parameters, which is maybe why it has received a middle-of-the-road response. And while there is undeniable creativity and effort that goes into these adverts, their stories may no longer be enough to engage audiences that have endured two years of real-life plot twists and an endless stream of emotionally-fuelled messaging from brands. 

Below we’ve highlighted some Christmas classics that helped to lay the path for iconic holiday promotions, and what brands can do to take a leaf out of their book this year.

While internet shopping and mass closures plagued the brand, Toys R Us is set for a mini-revival thanks to Macy’s. Prior to all this though, their advertising was highly effective, and while this ad dates back over three decades, there’s still a lot it can teach brands of today…

What can brands learn from Toys R Us, Magical Place?

We briefly mentioned covers of famous songs as one of the strings brands have to their formulaic ad bow. But if you take a look at this advert, one of the first things that stands out is the original music. 

Composing a jingle or song that sticks in the minds of consumers is of course an incredibly difficult task, but the lesson lies more in the level of commitment and effort that went into it. 

Hiring someone to perform a cover, along with the legalities of using a well-known artist’s song doesn’t come easy, but it’s been done so many times before. John Lewis even managed to get Elton John to sing and star in their ad back in 2018. 

So unless brands put a completely new twist on a song, they will only continue to out-celebrity each other with covers for so long. We know that music is an integral part of many Christmas adverts – usually resulting in the original or cover song re-entering the charts – so it’s important that agencies move away from the standard cover format if they want to bring something new to the table. 

Change the words. Switch up the genre. Surprise people with its delivery. Give the opportunity to an unknown artist. Make it instrumental and let the story speak for itself. 

How the delivery looks will vary from brand to brand, but one thing’s for sure – audiences will only react to acoustic covers of Oasis and Coldplay songs for so long.

Though Yellow Pages ceased printing in 2019, it’s a brand that’s still imprinted in the minds of multiple generations. Since going digital ‘Yell’ doesn’t need to release TV ads like they used to (they’ve had some great ones, you can watch them here), but this particular Christmas ad can teach brands some traditional and modern lessons.

What can brands learn from Yellow Pages, Mistletoe?

With the rise of TikTok, busier lives and shorter attention spans, short videos now make frequent appearances on social media. This advert from Yellow Pages is under 20 seconds, yet it tells a powerful story that highlights the product it is trying to push.

We learn that the book is so thick and comprehensive that the young boy is able to use it to gain significant height. It engages, it informs and it tugs on the heartstrings with its Christmas mistletoe spin, all with just 4 words of narration and 19 seconds of footage.

With many of the modern Christmas ads, we usually have to endure much longer sequences, not seeing any payoff or surprise until the last few seconds. A good strategic move for many reasons, but wouldn’t it be clever if a brand could tell their story and leave a great impression in much less than a minute?

Imagine a powerful series of shorts that stood out from the long-winding adventures of woodland creatures and animated vegetables to deliver Christmas messages that were concise, on-brand and equally as effective.

A brand needs to get across a lot, and with Christmas adverts usually being amongst the most expensive to produce, it’s understandable to want to say everything in one go. 

Exploring shorter stories to create a connection, spark intrigue or encourage an action could help your brand stand out.

This wholesome TV ad effortlessly captures the spirit of Christmas in exactly a minute. Featuring many traditional elements of a holiday scene – Santa, Christmas tree, soft glowing lights – this was one of the most iconic adverts of its time. This advert, though over 30 years old, could still land well on screens today. Let’s explore why…

What can brands learn from Kellogg’s Cornflakes, Ho Ho Ho?

The power of nostalgia in advertising can never be underestimated (Sainsbury’s proved this back in 2014 with their ‘1914’ Christmas ad). Since the end of 2019 many doubts have been cast on the future by media outlets and politicians. Reminiscing about the past and simpler times is a great way to bring back hope and revive the Christmas spirit.

This could take the form of introducing a well-known character from the past, capturing the essence of particular decades, bringing back historic brand adverts, or simply encouraging a tech-free, family-focused season. The simplistic nature of the ad is what gives it such broad appeal.

And after a succession of catastrophic events, audiences will want to reconnect with times that have gone by in a way like never before, and feel hopeful about the future. 

Which brands’ Christmas ads will stand out this year?

We expect to see some brands really push purpose and socially-driven narratives this Christmas. From saving the environment and the Christmases of the future, to taking brave political stances on global events, there is going to be some breaking of the traditional formula in more ways than one. 

Brands and agencies that take this approach will need to be cautious of ‘purpose fatigue’, be creative and ensure that whatever actions follow the TV spots match their holiday focus.

On the other hand, we are likely to see brands wanting to inject happiness and humour into uncertain times. We therefore believe we will see some imaginative and borderline offbeat approaches that will thwart the traditional TV ads. Expect clever and curious direction, feel-good stories and optimistic stances on the future. 

What audiences will engage with best remains to be seen, but as each person has responded so differently to the pandemic, it would be impossible for brands to hit the mark every time. There will be some people who want straight-talking sales and promotions ads, and others who crave humanisation and big-scale gestures from brands. 

One thing that’s guaranteed is that brands across the world have a fantastic opportunity to round up the events of 2021 in a truly creative way, and set the tone (and bar) for 2022.