In the U.S., Christmas falls into a trough between two bigger marketing events: the biggest shopping day of the year on Black Friday and the advertising world’s creative zenith, the Super Bowl.
So U.S. Christmas advertising is often little more than a formality. A few shots of some happy families, a quick descriptor of a retailer’s sale or an electronics company’s new product, and that’s it.
In Britain, however, the holiday season is like Black Friday and Thanksgiving rolled into one — and then extended into a two-month-long frenzy of consumerism in the last two months of the year.
Retailers bring out their big creative guns as well, in ways that might shock or puzzle Americans. While American retailers are busy indulging the world’s foremost consumers with images of sparkling new products and children thrilled to open them, British advertisers are tapping into something we just aren’t able to admit here in the States: The grim reality of Christmas, haunted by the specter of heart-wrenching sadness.
The biggest retailers compete to make the Brits cry by reminding them that Christmas is a painful, frustrating experience with only fleeting moments of happiness.
Already, the U.K. has spawned global viral hits with the department store John Lewis’ blockbuster animated film about a bear who has never celebrated Christmas, retailer Tesco’s unflinchingly honest depiction of family life at the holidays, and the grocery store Sainsbury’s epic compilation of real Christmas footage submitted by customers. Last year, Asda (Walmart’s UK supermarket brand) made a commercial about how awful it is to be a mum at Christmas. There is wide agreement that John Lewis set the standard in 2011 with an ad set to “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths, the ne plus ultra of pop miserableness.
All three of these ads share two things in common: One is that they are better than any of the holiday fare you’ll see on American television this season, and the other is the tears they’re eliciting from viewers around the globe, seemingly by the bucket.
Take the Tesco ad, which used special effects to depict a family on Christmas through the ages as if they were being shot on home video. In it, we see gleeful children age into surly teenagers and patches of grey creep into the hairs of adults who appeared youthful just a few frames earlier. Shots of sibling bickering and pensive faces are interwoven with those of joyous snowball fights and delectable Christmas meals.
The ads draw such an emotional response because like all annual events, the holidays mark the passage of time and remind us that if all goes according to plan, we, too, will one day become as old and weary as the man Sainsbury chose to show setting a Christmas table for one. As we take stock of another year gone by, it is impossible not to acknowledge that a significant portion of our time on earth will be spent pouting in a corner or arguing with the people closest to us. And that’s really, really sad.
But without this sadness, we wouldn’t fully register the holiday moments that make them worth looking forward to each year. Had the bear in John Lewis’ ad known Christmas before being introduced to it by a friendly rabbit, he’d never have marveled at a his first lit-up tree in quite the same way. Had the father in Sainsbury’s ad not gone off to war, his ultimate reunion with his family would not have been marked by such unadulterated bliss.
That’s why we keep coming home for the holidays every year, and why we can’t seem to stop ourselves from crying at all these British Christmas ads.
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