Leading retailers are toning down their Christmas advertising campaigns “to reflect the mood of the nation” as the UK heads towards what some predict will be the worst festive season for retail sales in living memory (MW last week).
Tesco’s Christmas campaign is expected to promote a “value” proposition, and will be more frugal than last year’s no-expense-spared ads featuring the Spice Girls. Tesco reportedly paid the group’s members £1m each to star in the ads.
Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer’s upcoming campaign featuring boy band Take That will be less extravagant than previous Christmas ads. Last year, the chain ran an ad featuring Antonio Banderas inspired by the golden age of Hollywood, while its high-spending 2006 campaign was set in an ice hotel. Such campaigns now look hubristic, promoting opulence as capitalism danced towards the cliff edge.
Analysts at Verdict Research predict the “toughest environment for retailers ever” this Christmas, while department store chain John Lewis said last week that the previous week’s sales were down nearly 10% compared with a year ago and warns of a “testing Christmas”.
Will Collin, a partner at media planning agency Naked, says people are being “conditioned” to be more cautious in their spending by media reports though most have yet to feel any harsh effects from the slowdown. He adds: “Retailers need a message that is about value and great prices that gives people permission to shop without triggering concerns of being wasteful and profligate.”
However, Greg Delaney, chairman of Delaney Lund Knox Warren – which creates ads for Morrisons, WH Smith and Halifax – warns that retailers must get the balance right. “There is an absolute requirement not to be too miserable because people want to enjoy themselves. Retailers that strike the right balance between that and the sober news on the economy will be the ones which succeed.”
He refuses to comment on Morrisons’ Christmas ads, though some believe last year’s campaign, which featured many celebrities, may need to be somewhat toned down. It is understood that WH Smith’s Christmas campaign will feature celebrity voiceovers but focus on value.
Yet there are worries that some brands have already committed themselves to inappropriate messages. Adam Leigh, chief executive of The Communications Agency, says: “Most brands make their Christmas ads in July or August, but the world suddenly went downhill in September.”
He predicts there will be much “last-minute tinkering” as retailers retune their messages to the tougher economic times. While TV ads are made months in advance, press and radio ads are written at the last moment so can reflect up-to-the-minute concerns. “Ads will be much more honest in the language they use, it won’t be big, shout-out-loud, retailing slogans. The body copy will say times are tough and will be sympathetic to people’s predicament,” says Leigh.
However, Barclaycard may have been caught out by timing. Last week, the credit card brand launched a big-spending ad that features a man jumping down a water slide which winds round an office building. Gerry Moira, creative director of Euro RSCG London, says the ad is “great fun” but wonders how much it cost and whether such a big budget ad is appropriate, particularly for a credit card lender, in these times.
Another advertising agency source says ads that look extravagant can actually be produced on a low budget. Production costs on ads costing over £1m are a tiny proportion of media spend: “It is not about budgets, it is about messages the brands should be communicating,” he says. It is important that ads show brands are in tune with the public’s concerns about the future.
Against the trend towards parsimony is the idea that we need to keep spending to ensure the economy does not slump into depression. And some extravagant shoppers may feel that if they are going to lose their jobs next year, they may as well enjoy one final spendthrift Christmas before the good times disappear in a puff of smoke.