Presents Or Politics – The Changing Face Of The Christmas Ad

Nick Gold 21 November 2018

Last week, Iceland’s Christmas advert was rejected by Clearcast, the body responsible for vetting adverts. Most people have seen the clip by now – at least 20 million across Facebook and YouTube at the time of writing – and will instantly recognize the lost orangutan. The ad failed to make it to television for breaching rules banning political advertising in the 2003 Communications Act. This is largely because the video was made by the environmental organization Greenpeace.

Since the banning of the ad and its journey to viral-status, Iceland has received mixed reviews. Celebrities including James Corden and Paloma Faith have supported the campaign to allow it to be aired on TV, whilst other voices – largely across social media – have read the piece with cynicism, wary of the fact that a huge retailer like Iceland would know beforehand what might get rejected by regulatory bodies.

There are a few arguments here. We have seen open discussion about what constitutes the ‘political’ and who should get to decide what we, as consumers, can and cannot see. We have seen sceptical arguments about the true intentions of Iceland, and whether their stance is opportunistic, designed to profit off the unregulated space of Facebook and other social media channels.

Under the first argument of regulating political content, we enter a debate about authenticity. We see the demand in 2018 for brands to have a purpose that goes beyond increasing their own sales; we want them to believe in something so that we can too. If we expect brands to have an authentic purpose, are various bodies of authority blocking their messages? And should this be allowed? It is clear that one person’s opinion of what is ‘too political’ will differ from someone else’s and that the argument itself requires nuance. But it does seem that our desire to connect with a brand’s authentic purpose could be hindered by authorial bodies who have the power to censor what we see. Imagine the missed opportunity if Nike would have chosen to maintain their status quo rather than using Colin Kaepernick and the ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’ slogan.

The status quo in Christmas adverts is easily recognizable. Huge retailers – with John Lewis often taking the lead – chose an ad format specifically to tug on the heart strings of the viewer. We all remember the WWI soldiers from Sainsbury’s, Paddington with Marks & Spencer, and Kevin the Carrot from Aldi.

From Monty the Penguin in 2014 to Moz the Monster in 2017, John Lewis rely on a few foolproof tropes: children, music, lovable mascots, and the cosy home environment. Although this year they traded their endearing mascot for Elton John – which will arguably increase his record sales more than John Lewis’s own – the same motifs are in place to ensure a crowd-pleasing ad.

Upholding the status quo produces adverts that make us feel comfortable and Christmassy, but is the family tear-jerker style becoming stale?

It could be argued that Iceland spotted the recurring pattern and decided that moving away from the format, though a risk, could pay off. Those who are cynical of Iceland’s intentions believe the orangutan, voiced by Emma Thompson, is an opportunistic appeal for more viewers than anyone else. They also believe that the ‘banning’ of the ad from TV is part of the plan and use the animatronic orangutan that is currently plodding around London as back-up to their theory.

Whilst yes, it is probably true that Iceland were prepared for the ad-blocking, and that the viral status of the piece was a big target for them, the message behind the ad is not empty. Despite using some of the John Lewis-eqsue tropes – the child, the lovable mascot – it isn’t really about Christmas at all. Or, at least not in the way tinsel-clad trees and jingle bells are.

Just a few weeks ago, the IPCC Environmental Report told us we have just 10 years left to save the planet and highlighted the differences made by just a 1.5°C increase in temperature. This Christmas, whilst the statistics of the report are still fresh in our minds, Iceland have promised two things: to eradicate the use of palm oil in their products and stop using single-use plastic. With the IPCC report and the recent announcement of ‘single-use’ as Collins Dictionary ‘Word of the Year’, this could not have come at a better time.

Iceland recognized a capability of the Christmas ad that has been proven for years: the opportunity to connect with people emotionally. However, they sacrificed the chance to present a cosy, Iceland-catered Christmas in favour of making a stand on one of the biggest issues the world faces today. Although the videography isn’t pretty – instead of warm fairy-lights and plush tartan sofas we see bulldozers in a rainforest and terrified animals – it carves the space for reflection. Iceland are redefining the commercialisation of Christmas.

Not only does their campaign say we are the best in the game at advertising it also says, if you succumb to our emotive ad, you are a good person. And, considering that they are on track to eradicate palm oil in their products by the end of the year, we cannot really pray of their intentions with a cynical eye. I believe that we can now explore the potential for Christmas to not only represent family-time and gift-giving, but a space to reflect on truly generation-defining issues.

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