The evolution of the Christmas ad

Christmas ads have been around for over 100 years, and whether you love ’em or loathe ‘em, they have evolved to become a firm staple of the consumer experience throughout the festive season.

With the current category king John Lewis reporting returns of as much as 20x its annual investment, it’s no surprise that advertisers small and large, new and established, all want to get in on the action. But whilst many brands fight it out with JL to deliver the most tear-jerking storyline of the year, there are some alternative strategies that can be just as effective at cutting through during the festive period.

We’ve taken a look back at a handful of approaches used over the years to find out what hits home and what leaves viewers with their heads in their hands…

The ‘tradition-shaker’ route

Known now for its iconic festive TV ad ‘Holidays are coming’, Coca Cola was one of the very first brands to harness the opportunity that presented itself with advertising around Christmas. Through its use of print ads in magazines in the 1920’s, the brand chose to do something that would be unthinkable now… Taking the once skinny and elf-like depiction of Santa Claus, they transformed his image, instead showing him as a plump, jolly, red faced old man.

The image used by the brand became part of the collective cultural consciousness and has influenced the world’s idea of what Father Christmas should look like ever since.

Modern attempts to shake up traditions around Christmas haven’t always been quite so successful. One of most notable was PayPal’s ‘No Presents’ campaign in 2015, which received 464 Ofcom complaints for implying that Santa didn’t exist, when the boys in the video saw no sign of their parents going shopping.

More recently in 2018, Greggs came under fire while promoting the launch of its advent calendar, ft baby Jesus being replaced with a sausage roll. Whilst the stunt came under fire with the press, the brand reported an uplift in sales the following week, showing that for some, a light-hearted twist on Christmas traditions can be a welcomed change.

The ‘We know your loved ones better than you do’ route

Hoover was one of the first recorded brands to advertise on TV over Christmas in the 1960’s. Its creative strategy took the smug road of suggesting that the brand knew your loved ones better than you did, with the strapline ‘Give her what she really wants for Christmas’.

Although this strategy had been used widely across print prior and has since been used on many successful Christmas campaigns, the importance of tone was highlighted last year when exercise bike brand Peloton came under fire for its ‘The Gift that gives back’ campaign.

The ad in question, showed a woman receiving an exercise bike on Christmas morning with the strapline ‘This Holiday, give the gift of Peloton’. The ad was mocked on social media and was widely derided as ‘sexist and dystopian’, leading to the brand losing $1.5bn (9%) in share value.

The ‘How-many-products-can-you-fit-into-a-60”-TV-spot’ route

For kids of the 70’s and 80’s, there’s a nostalgic affection held towards Woolworth’s chaotic, product-centric Christmas TV ads. Watching them back now with the context of the emotive content that we’re spoilt with today, it’s perhaps a little hard to understand why.

However, despite what feels like a ‘sell, sell, sell’ approach, the brand was painfully authentic. Taking every opportunity to show the broadest range of products and pricing, even making use of the music track over ads to literally, sing about them. The brand made sure to always incorporate a fun energy to the creative and was one of the first to feature a wide array of celebs in its iconic festive ads.

Meanwhile in 2020, Argos and Lego both took on the product-centric approach with great success, capturing the fun that can be had by bringing their ranges to life in a way that feels true to their brand.

One advertiser that didn’t quite hit the mark this year though, was John Lewis and Waitrose. Their joint ad took a different approach to usual, using multiple animators (who had all been affected by the pandemic) to contribute to the final ad. Whilst the sentiment of the idea was strong, the noticeable shift towards a use of Waitrose bags within the ad made it feel more salesy than consumers were used to and distracted from the storytelling.

The ‘make them laugh’ approach

The use of humour in Christmas ads isn’t a new approach, with just one early TV example being Mercury phones in the 1990’s, who used moving Santa beards and deliberately botched editing to pit them apart from their competitors. But in the current landscape, when consumers screens are filled with emotive music and tear-jerking storylines, brands brave enough to try and make people laugh can win hearts (and sales.)

From rapping dinosaurs, to designer-clothes-wearing Goats, brands Ikea and TK Maxx are just a couple that have succeeded in creating strong, humorous Christmas ads over the last couple of years, hitting just the right tone for their target audiences and driving high engagement online.

Another tactic we’ve seen go down well with consumers in recent years has been brands piggybacking off relevant themes and even parodying other ads. Supermarket brand Lidl has become known for its quick social responses to competitors, but broke the internet in 2018 when it released an image of a keyboard with the headline: ‘it’s a Lidl bit funny’ as a direct hit at John Lewis.

So, whether it’s bravely attempting to reshape traditions, heralding favourite products, or just trying to make people laugh, there are many strategies that can help brands cut through at Christmas… At HOME, ads with strong storylines seem to be the office favourites, such as Sainsbury’s 1914 football game and Mog’s Christmas Calamity. Although our Homies do also have a fondness for the peculiar, with KFC’s 2018 ad and this year’s Plenty ad also getting a mention. And of course, the iconic Mrs Claus from M&S was another top pick. Let us know your favourite ad over at @homeagencyuk.

Written by:

Laura Osborne Media Manager


What we like



You may also like

What we like


/  13 Dec 2021

A super bright future for women’s football

As a female footballer who loves all things colourful and creative, – you can imagine my pure joy at the recent reveal of the Women’s World Cup 2023 logo and branding. I’ve always found the visual language of football very … well, masculin

Read more

What we like


/  08 Dec 2021

Saving the world one teddy at a time

Casually scrolling on social media, I didn’t expect to stumble across something as wholesome and heart-warming as Loved Before. Before you ask, no, this isn’t a new dating app. Loved Before is a revolutionary soft toy adoption agency on a miss

Read more