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Drapers Debate: Christmas adverts – who wins in the clash of the retail titans?

Some of the UK’s biggest retailers are unveiling their Christmas video this week - but which will get the tills ringing? Drapers Debates (and you can have your say too).

Emily Norval backs Marks & Spencer

Emily Norval

Emily Norval

M&S has seen a real mixture in its Christmas adverts over the past few years, with some faring far better than others. Last year’s fell to a particular low, with a ‘greatest hits’ theme which didn’t seem to relate much to Christmas at all (although it did show off the products well, which I suppose is really the point in the end).

2011 saw the X-Factor finalists, each more irritating than the last, singing ‘When you wish upon a star’, interspersed with sentimental family Christmas scenes, but it didn’t really have a ‘story. 2010 brought a real treat, reproducing famous film scenes and music videos from Grease, Saturday Night Fever and Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, rather brilliantly featuring Peter Kay alongside Twiggy and Dannii Minogue.

But there hasn’t really been a bit hit for M&S in the same manner that John Lewis has. This year, however, its time has come.

A Christmas advert should be one of two things – either funny/sentimental/clever enough to get everyone talking about it, or, if it doesn’t achieve that, show off the product. Remember product? The things these adverts are actually supposed to encourage us to buy?!

Marks Spencer Helena

Marks Spencer Helena



John Lewis has got away with having no product (except for an alarm clock and a scarf) in its last two adverts because they have been both clever and schmaltzy enough to ensure that nobody minds. It’s hard to see product through that many tears anyway. But having product in does work - just look at the success of Debenhams’ red coat following it’s featuring in its advert last year.

M&S this year has managed to do both. It has a great storyline, enough celebrity presence to get people talking, plus swishy special effects, but equally cleverly – it shows off what you can actually buy in-store. We might have reached a point where Christmas adverts are nothing more than mini-movies, with little relevance to actual Christmas ranges, but balancing the two has made M&S the winner in my eyes this season.

(There will, of course, never be a better M&S Christmas ad than that of 2006, where the James Bond themed mini-film ended with a belter from Shirley Bassey.)

Catherine Neilan backs John Lewis

Catherine Neilan

Catherine Neilan

This year the retailers have pushed the boat out with bigger and better campaigns than ever before. John Lewis – conscious of its ‘tall poppy syndrome’ - has really gone to town, forking out a whopping £7m on marketing for the Christmas period (although £5m of that is just on air time).

But the £1m production costs have been well spent. Until now I’ve been left dry-cheeked by John Lewis’ attempt at tear-jerking festive ads. I preferred the Gordon Ramsey spoof of the little boy advert to its original and the cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Power of Love made me rue the day that slow lo-fi covers ever became popular.

So for me the animation – from the pencil of The Lion King animator Aaron Blaise – is the best one yet. It stresses John Lewis’ message that Christmas isn’t (only) about arch materialism but about sharing it with the right people. I agree it’s a risk not to include products, and that Debenhams red coat advert last year really caught the imagination, but the department store’s effort this year is more of a desperate attempt to get as many products in as possible, with no attempt at delivering a message, which could be an even riskier approach given this is the time of year that everyone outdoes themselves with adverts that tell a story.

John Lewis Christmas advert

John Lewis Christmas advert

This is also hardly the first time that John Lewis has gone without highlighting individual items and that hasn’t been a problem so far, with marketing director Craig Inglis taking a conscious decision to go for “emotional connection” rather than product lust.

As technology advances and people increasingly turn to clickable adverts, John Lewis may find it needs to adopt a different tactic, with companies like Asos already giving us a taste of what’s to come. But until then it’s right to go for the approach that leaves you feeling imbued by the spirit of Christmas and – most importantly - gift-giving.

And who’s to say the Hare and the Bear themselves won’t become must have items.

John Lewis Christmas 2013

Debenhams Christmas 2013

Marks and Spencer Christmas 13

Readers' comments (2)

  • M & S by miles

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  • You have to question whether these adverts really make a difference? Would any of these players be affected if they didn't have one? The ads are becoming increasingly removed from the actual stores, though in Debenhams case, that may not be such a bad thing... :)

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