Big family gatherings are likely to be off limits, and the party season has been cancelled. But coronavirus can’t stop Christmas from coming as struggling retailers kick off high-stakes festive advertising campaigns in the face of brutal trading conditions.
We’re still at least a fortnight away from the milestone that is the big reveal of the John Lewis ad, but from 1 November television viewers will be transported to late December as the first crop of ads, filled with snowy streets, Christmas knits, mince pies and must-have gadgets, is broadcast.
Retailers have been urging Britons to start present buying earlier than usual aware that any new Covid restrictions could play havoc with the traditional December dash and have a disastrous impact on sales.
It is not yet clear what a new national lockdown in England would mean for retailers. Under the current tier system, even the highest level allows all shops to stay open, but non-essential retailers were forced to close for Wales’s firebreak lockdown and they are shut in France. Online shopping is expected to move up a gear as shoppers navigate lockdown restrictions. This shift will benefit online specialists such as Amazon but disadvantage those with large store networks that usually see millions of shoppers at this time of year.
Argos, the catalogue chain, is one of the first out of the traps with its ad featuring sisters putting on a magic show for their family with a £12 box of tricks. Set to a new song by Take That’s Gary Barlow, it celebrates the “joy of going back to basics”, says Argos.
In the coming days, other major retailers including Asda, Very and Marks & Spencer will enter the fray, but the pandemic means big-budget extravaganzas will be thin on the ground. Travel restrictions scuppered cheaper shoots in overseas locations – last year Romania doubled for Sainsbury’s Dickensian London – and companies keen to appear sensitive to the unfolding health crisis are organising myriad charity tie-ups.
Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer at ad agency Havas, said retailers had to tread carefully to avoid looking like they were “Covid-washing” commercial messages.
Maguire, who has worked on several M&S campaigns, said the Christmas advertising season was the UK’s “Super Bowl moment” – a time of big-budget ads shrouded in secrecy – but this year it’s all about tone with glitz. “You can’t risk featuring multiple generations around a table passing a prawn ring around while the neighbours pop over,” she said. “And I think the national mood is done with lockdown-style messaging reminding everyone how bad things are. People want more optimism, not tear-jerkers, but they don’t want to be patronised if Christmas is effectively cancelled.”
In what is a familiar tradition in many British homes, the Argos ad begins with the sisters circling Marvin’s Magic Set in the retailer’s gift guide, which , unlike the main catalogue, is still being printed.Rob Quartermain, senior campaign manager for Argos, said planning its ad in a pandemic had been a minefield. It was filmed in September – a week after the “rule of six” was introduced – at Shepperton Studios in west London, with the cast and crew “bubbling” in a nearby hotel.
“The hardest element to judge this year was getting the tone right in terms of how people are going to feel about Christmas,” said Quartermain. “We had to make delicate decisions around how extended family, in particular, was portrayed.”
In what is expected to be a common trope this year, Asda and Very are running “homely, domestic, family-themed” ads. The sofa chain DFS, however, is providing some light relief as Wallace & Gromit grapple with social distancing in its ad.
The economic turmoil caused by the health crisis has resulted in advertising budgets being slashed by 10% in the run-up to Christmas, although companies will still shell out £6.2bn in the festive advertising battle. Despite big cuts in cinema, newspaper and magazine advertising, spending on television the traditional launchpad of the big Christmas ad campaign,has held up at around £1.35bn, demonstrating its continued importance to advertisers seeking big audiences.
Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association, said that even in the age of streaming, TV advertising remained “critically important” as it enabled retailers to “reach the most people” at Christmas.
In the run-up to 25 December, shoppers were making complex decisions about which supermarket, clothing or department store to visit, weighing up factors such as price, quality and convenience – with anxiety around pandemic shopping trips further complicating the picture.
“These are big commercial battles to get you to shop in one store over another,” said Woodford. “Win that business millions of times and you’ve got a great Christmas; lose it and you’re struggling. Brands have to win the emotional battle and make people feel that ‘that’s the place that I want to go’.”
— to www.theguardian.com