The Lockdown Advertising Wars — Christmas is Coming

Covid gave some brands the chance to spread their creative wings — whilst others flew too close to the sun. Now we’re on the precipice of Christmas ad season — how bad could it get?

If there was one reliable constant in marketing through the past few months — one single device that would summarise the difficulties we’ve all faced and workarounds we’ve become used to — it’s the Zoom-based TV ad.

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As use of the platform exploded between colleagues, families and friends, brands and their agencies adopted it as a practical and tonally appropriate creative medium with ads being dreamt up, sold in and produced remotely — all in two dimensions.

From Purple Bricks to Facebook to Dominos to Virgin Media, the bandwagon was already at capacity by the end of month one in April. Not only were advertisers’ knee-jerking with eerily similar video call executions in response to ‘the unexpected’, they were all apparently borrowing the same teeth-grating copy from the same dictionary of clichés to do so.

“Togetherness”, “Community”, “Stay Safe”, “Look after each other” and “We’re in this together”. If we weren’t living through a pandemic, some of the more precious executions would’ve been ridiculed and removed from the face of the earth before they left the Art Director’s sketch pad. We were, however, living in “Unprecedented Times” and by May, urged to seek out the most inhumane weapon in the advertiser’s Covid arsenal, “The New Normal”.

Just when consumers were threatening to put a foot through their telly in frustration, a campaign came along that prompted thoughts of sowing their eyes shut and pouring Superglue down their earholes.

This blight on society was care of Nationwide Building Society.

Delivered by the usually reliable brains at VCCP, the bank’s ‘Voices’ campaign determined to solve the Coronavirus problem in one fell swoop by creating a universal hatred so powerful it could nuke Covid-19 off the face of the earth (leaving behind a crater of apathy, sadness and shame).

One early execution encouraged the general public to “…keep looking out for each other. Don’t take each other for granted” — thus squeezing not one but two superfluous clichés into an ad already bursting at the seams with twee bullshit. In a hybrid of slam poetry and a twelve-year-old’s attempts at Valentine’s card poesy, the campaign had literally no redeeming features, making the presence of multiple executions even harder to fathom.

In the most recent, a lady gets in laudatory raptures about getting a free cake. Because we’re all in this together. And we need treats. And financial services.

Shut up. Never happened.

It’s so bad, even the Americans would wonder if it’s sincere. But no, it’s targeting us Brits — and Nationwide had the audacity to play it straight when even a smidgen of irony would’ve given the campaign at least a veneer of respectability.

Nationwide did miss an obvious trick with this atrocity. I’d pay good money to watch the rehearsal tapes as the actors read their scripts to their laptop cameras for the first time, simultaneously grateful for the paycheque whilst mentally assessing their career options after the acting offers inevitably dried up. I might have even opened an account for the privilege.

I wish this was the worst thing to hit our screens in this most tumultuous of times.

Sadly, it won’t be.

The threat of a second Lockdown twinned in a perfect storm with a looming recession means that 2020’s Christmas ads are likely to end the most despicable of years on a new, hitherto unimaginable low.

So moisten your tear ducts and start chugging the eggnog in preparation for these pending horrors:-

John Lewis — the perennial Xmas ad champs have a rule book — refurbished song, endearing lead character (preferably a cuddly animal that can be sold at a premium), heavy product placement and ‘emotion’. This year, their ad will likely be animated thanks to lock down and there’s already a petition in place begging the retailer to save the year with a Magnum Opus — think Apple’s ‘1984’ meets ‘The Notebook’. However, with sales through the floor and bonuses on hold for the first time since 1953, the retailer needs to flog some goods, and fast — so much hinges on Adam&Eve/DDB playing their socks off.

CocaCola — Santa will be edited — again — and something about togetherness will try and add a contemporary vibe. If the general public needs reassurance, then Coke’s ad will be it — making it feel like every Christmas since the early ‘80’s.

Video Calls — “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, more Zoom ads are coming to town”. While some will default to cutesy motion graphics characters, at least half the big supermarkets will likely feature families getting together over Teams, Skype, Facetime and Zoom with HILARIOUS results (thanks to a B-list comedy couple in the husband and wife/ husband and husband/ wife and wife roles) as they try to get used to the new norm… urggh

TikTok — not that it differs from what they usually do, but ad agencies will be ‘borrowing’ heavily from the Meme-o-sphere and popular TikToks/ Snaps/ Insta Stories to save them the trouble of coming up with an original thought whilst projecting coolness with an expensive finger on the Gen Z pulse. Expect catastrophic misinterpretation of the medium and tone deafness in abundance — which could be oddly entertaining.

Mobile Phones — ‘Bringing People Together’ — in some guise, metaphor or imagery, this is the only available positioning for the Apples and Samsungs of this world. High production values, sharp visuals and obscene media spends will struggle to hide the fact that while the world has morphed dramatically, their products haven’t — and a single sprig of mistletoe next to a mawkish Hashtag can’t change that.

Celebrities — no change here — stars of stage and screen pay their taxes from seasonal ad revenue but this year, it’ll take more than an Elton John cameo to shake off the winter blues. With their newfound freedom (and golden handcuffs, care of Netflix) could this be the first year we see a regal advert featuring Harry and Meghan? They’ll probably start safe — NSPCC or Oxfam, thus opening the gates for their first commercial gig for M&S (or Jägermeister) some time in 2021.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The awfulness of 2020 has, through necessity, induced some wonderful humanity, humour and collaboration amongst the population. The NHS, essential workers, teachers and their ilk have been rightfully hero-worshipped by an adoring and supportive public who have, to a large extent, kept their British chins up and smiles (albeit those of a slightly pained variety) on their faces.

When Christmas ads kick off the day after Bonfire night, the enduring sentiment will be bittersweet as brands try to either help us forget an emotionally draining year or tap into a demented ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality.

Either way, Christmas campaigns will try to guarantee heart strings are tugged while unnecessary products are aggressively sold (often to the detriment of individual credit ratings) to make up for shortfalls elsewhere — a tightrope few will navigate successfully.

Harry is the founder of Brand Architects, a UK based strategic brand and marketing consultancy specialising in digital start-ups, online gaming and esports. You can contact him at Harry@BrandArchitects.co.uk or connect on Linked In

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