Why some Christmas adverts have been toned down - and how others haven't

ITV News' Dani Sinha reports on the change in tone for this year's Christmas adverts.

Words by ITV News Content Producer Narbeh Minassian

The UK’s gloomy economic outlook and the cost-of-living crisis mean many will be toning their Christmas festivities down this year.

Around 70% of Britons are cutting back their spending compared to last year and 75% say they aren’t planning a “big celebration”, according to a recent survey by Accenture.

That’s while families across the country fear they won’t keep up with rising energy bills and food costs – with a two-year recession on the horizon too.

Attempting to reflect the times over the past few Christmases, stretching back to the Covid outbreak, retailers have weighed up how they approach their famed festive TV adverts.

So how have they tried to capture the mood this Christmas?

What do the adverts look like this year?

Taking a different approach altogether is John Lewis, which became the latest major retailer to release its advert on Thursday.

The advert – now a highly anticipated staple of the festive season that has starred the likes of Sir Elton John – raises awareness of children in care, rather than pushing any particular product line.

This year, it follows a man painfully learning to master a skateboard as he awaits the arrival of a young teenager his family is fostering.

Lidl’s advert adopts a similar charitable theme, starring an expressionless bear who experiences a rollercoaster of festive fame to deliver a message about what is actually important at Christmas.

The supermarket chain announced they wouldn’t be selling the Lidl Bear in their stores, instead using it as the inspiration for their Christmas charitable drive, Lidl Bear’s Toy Bank.

Customers can drop off new and unopened toys to be gifted to children that need support in the local area.

While Tesco’s advert doesn’t nod to any charity, its focus this year is on its offers and deals designed to help families celebrate the season.

“The only thing we’ll cut is our prices,” the advert promises.

In a “Christmas Party Broadcast”, it declares a “joy shortage” and runs through cut-price products on offer, such as pigs in blankets, wines and cakes.

“The last few years have been a challenge, because you can’t avoid the fact that times are difficult for a number of reasons,” Robert Weatherhead, an advertising consultant with 20 years of experience told ITV News.

“Normally it’s all ‘cheery, cheery jingle bells’... and I think people want that escapism but you can’t avoid what’s going on in the world, especially when these ads have become such a highlighted thing every year.”

Not all retailers have chosen a toned-down approach, however.

Sainsbury’s has put out their advert earlier than usual this year as shoppers buy Christmas gifts well ahead of time to spread the cost over several weeks.

Starring TV presenter and host Alison Hammond, its advert is set in a medieval castle as the queen – played by Hammond – demands only the best desserts from nervous-looking cooks.

It shows a long table full of food and ostentatiously-dressed guests in what is a more traditional Christmas advert.

Asda features Hollywood star Will Ferrell’s iconic Christmas character, Buddy the Elf, hired as a temporary worker as a store, which he duly decorates in stunning fashion.

Marks & Spencer, meanwhile, features the voices of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders talking through its range of food on offer without mention of prices.

“It is very difficult to capture the public mood this year. You’ve got a backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, cash-strapped shoppers, and the potential of a gloomy year ahead,” Catherine Shuttleworth, founder and CEO of retail marketing agency Savvy, told ITV News.

“But families do want to celebrate Christmas. This is the first Christmas when we know we are back to normal ahead of time since Covid.

"There is a big balance to be played out and ultimately they are businesses and they’ve got to maximise opportunities to shop with them rather than the competitor.”

So, why are the adverts so different to each other?

The style of adverts we’ve seen this Christmas can be broken down into three different categories, Matt Bourn communications director at the Advertising Association told ITV News.

They are:

1) Christmas fun – “The first one is that it’s out and out ‘it’s Christmas, let’s have fun’, like the Asda advert,” Mr Bourn said.

2) Christmas help – “The second is ‘it’s Christmas, but we understand you won’t have as much money, so here’s how we can help you enjoy the season', and that’s Tesco’s advert."

3) Charity – “The third is the John Lewis-style advert, which they’re using almost as an opportunity to say ‘we as a business support charities and we try make the UK a better place with social contribution'.”

John Lewis, which created its advert with input from partner charities Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland, has been “very clever”, he added.

But all retailers make their choices and he hasn’t seen any that he feels misses the tone completely.

“People who are making the work, it’s driven by market research and insight, and I think it’s sensitive to where people’s heads are at,” he said.

“I haven’t watched many and thought ‘you’ve got that wrong’.”

‘The battle of Christmas won’t be won in adverts’

While Christmas adverts remain a powerful tool for retailers in terms of brand awareness, Ms Shuttleworth believes they are less important this year.

She said their research shows more than 30% of shoppers are planning to go to Aldi and Lidl to save money, which means others have to “work hard” to attract their business.

“The battle of Christmas won’t be won in adverts,” she said.

“It will be won on loyalty points, vouchers, coupons, offers you get online and bargains. The win is not going to be in the Christmas ads.”

John Lewis hopes its advert will spark a national conversation. Credit: John Lewis

Spending on Christmas adverts is expected to increase over the final quarter of 2022 – which covers the Christmas period – to a record £9.5 billion, according to research by the Advertising Association and marketing insight firm WARC.

Around £3.4 billion of that will be spent on digital advertisement, while £1.7 billion will go towards TV advertising, which matches the record set over the final quarter in 2021.

This suggests retailers are still putting huge efforts into the campaigns and backing it up with big budgets, with Mr Bourn describing a general “fascination” with Christmas adverts, particularly in recent years as retailers try to gauge the public mood.

“Historians could one day look at each year and look at the Christmas ads to get an idea of what it was like to live then, it’s a sort of nugget into society,” he said.

“Particularly over the past three or four years. It would be fascinating to say what Christmas looked like in 2019, and then in 2020, and how it bounced back in 2021.”

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