What is Christmasy about setting fire to Christmas cards? What is festive about a giant Venus flytrap almost eating a small dog? Nothing, but apparently those are the kinds of Christmases two of the largest high-end retailers are trying to sell us, and we aren’t buying.
The release of Christmas ads in November launches the holiday season, and there are few greater British traditions than gathering around the kettle in the work kitchen to talk about the new John Lewis advert the day after it’s aired.
But the first major retailer to release its ad did not get the reaction it had hoped for. Marks & Spencer faced a backlash over its ‘Love Thismas, Not Thatmas’ ad, which sent the message that traditional Christmas needs to be burnt down, shredded, smashed, and go swimming with the fishes.
In one scene of the retailer’s clothing and home campaign, Sophie Ellis-Bextor turns her attention from browning marshmallows on a gingerbread house with a kitchen blowtorch to setting a stack of Christmas cards on fire. In another, paper hats get mulched into confetti, an elf gets launched off the roof of a house with a baseball bat – you get the idea.
It ends with the voiceover saying: ‘This Christmas, do anything you love.’
‘Do anything you love.’ Eschew the spirit of charity. Destroy Christmas and make it all about you. Not about family. Not about children. Reject tradition.
The John Lewis ad was worse. If the Little Shop of Horrors did Christmas ads, it would look like this.
In short, a boy’s Christmas tree seed grows into a giant voracious Venus flytrap with multiple sharp-toothed mouths, that at one point appears to snap after the family’s Pomeranian. Fearful of the carnivorous plant, the boy’s mother, grandmother, and sister take it outside.
But the narrative that you shouldn’t judge a predatory plant based on its natural inclination triumphs when the family joins the flytrap in the garden with their presents. And as if taking inspiration from the feverish delusions of a sick toddler, the ad ends with the plant snatching the wrapped gifts, gobbling at them, and spitting them back at the family, unwrapped.
John Lewis’s message is spelt out and very much the same as M&S: reject tradition. Or as the major retailer phrased it, the ad “celebrates the joy in the UK’s changing Christmas traditions.”
At one time, John Lewis set the standard for Christmas ads. Memorable favourites like Monty the Penguin (2014), the 2010 montage ad accompanied to Ellie Goulding’s rendition of ‘Your Song’, or the adventurous snowman ad of 2012, were warm, festive, and at times tear-jerking. They celebrated dreaming and childlike innocence. They felt like they were produced with true love for the season. While not all were cookie-cutter traditionally Christmasy in appearance, they conveyed those timeless values of family, sharing, hope, and gratitude. They were crafted with the skill of Don Draper.
The 2023 John Lewis ad is ugly nightmare fodder.
The affordable food retailers, however, embraced and celebrated the traditional messages of Christmas.
Asda leans enthusiastically into the festive season with its joyful, light-hearted ‘Make This Christmas Incredibublé’ ad, featuring Michael Bublé as a store quality officer.
Showing off turkey, mince pies, panettone, and enough cheeses to put a lactose intolerant into a coma, Bublé is funny and ostentatious. The sets are tastefully but festively decorated, and the ad is finished with the singer joining a choir of staff in an energetic rendition of ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland’.
Asda struck the right chord and knew its audience. It knows they’re suffering under the cost-of-living crisis and says without saying: you can still afford to have a nice Christmas dinner this year.
The Aldi advert sees a return of Kevin the Carrot, this time in his adventures in a Christmas food-themed Willy Wonka’s factory. Narrated by British actor Jim Broadbent, lines of poetry convey deep-rooted values such as: ‘Only Kevin the carrot clearly understood the true meaning of Christmas and the importance of being good.’
And: ‘The season of goodwill was truly in the air, for Christmas is a time that’s sweeter when you share.’
But it was fellow German food retailer Lidl that stole the paper Christmas crown. A racoon who loves Christmas goes on a little hero’s journey to make sure a toy monkey gets delivered to the boy who he’s been watching through the window. While never discovered to be the creature that placed the toy under the tree, the raccoon is rewarded when the family dog takes a portion of Christmas dinner outside to share with him.
It was old John Lewis: full of innocence, adventure, mild peril, and generosity. It was moving and warm. It shared an important message: little gestures of kindness matter.
And the latter two retailers put their money where their mouth is: both Aldi and Lidl are part of the Neighbourly charity network to distribute unsold surplus food to local communities. Lidl is also hosting toy banks for donations in their stores and has said that it will be producing the monkey and raccoon toys for sale, with the proceeds going to Neighbourly.
These aren’t just empty words, but action. The desire to help comes through these ads and touches people. These are authentic expressions of the season of good will towards all men.
What I and people who took issue with in the M&S and John Lewis ads is not that some individuals reject traditional Christmas. People are free to have whatever unconventional Christmases they want and not be judged for it.
No, this is about people tired of being nudged by forces that shape our society and craft our media that our world must change. That even though we are in the majority, we must have our expression of our culture and tradition come second – or not at all – to unconventionality, modernity, and progression.
‘Don’t touch or break our Christmases,’ we’re saying.
These messages from John Lewis and Marks & Spencer were intentional, crafted by professional agencies that have been captured and work to serve the woke agenda and their ‘purpose-driven’ campaigns – sometimes at the expense of profit. While unconventional unChristmas ads are not woke in themselves, they originate from the same spiteful anti-tradition place.
But the fickle monster you feed eventually comes back to bite you over any perceived form of ‘hate’, slight, or microaggression. Case in point: Marks & Spencer had shared a still outtake from their ad to social media, showing paper hats burning in a fireplace, before quickly deleting it and apologising for any offence caused.
Not apologising to those Christmas-lovers who might have thought it mean spirited, but to pro-Palestinian activists. Yes, Marks & Spencer took seriously complaints that burning red and green paper hats was insensitive and stoking tensions because Palestinian flags also happen to feature red and green.
Let no good pandering go unpunished.