Are brands better off reflecting reality or pushing boundaries at Christmas?

Heads up, this column is about Christmas ads. If you’ve already seen more analysis than you can bear, look away now. But if you’re a woman with a festive to-do list as long as your arm, you might want to read on.

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Believe it or not, it’s 10 years since the Advertising Standards Authority ruled Asda wasn’t guilty of enforcing outdated stereotypes with its Christmas ad, following a slew of complaints from both women and men.

Depicting an exhausted mum weighed down with all the Christmas preparations while the rest of the family put their feet up (literally) around her, the ASA said the ad was, in fact, reflecting reality. (Fact: a survey by Jeyes has found British women are responsible for 17 Christmas-related jobs while men have just nine, one of which is ‘carving the turkey’.)

Fast forward to Asda’s entirely non-divisive (unless, of course, you hate him) ‘Incredibublé’ spot this year – which follows hot on the heels of last year’s Christmas-winning Elf spot – and it’s clear the supermarket decided that tackling the prickly subject of household gender roles just wasn’t for it, and has moved on to lighter stuff.

Think of this, though (and know I’m only half joking): if we agree that the success of marketers’ Christmas investments tracks with how accurately they’ve captured the current mood of the nation, and if half of the people contributing to that national mood are tired, mentally overloaded women and mothers, then you have to ask, why did Asda’s 2012 spot cause such a furore?

One argument is that the folks at the supermarket giant were simply ahead of their time. After all, we’ve seen John Lewis roundly challenge tradition by depicting a single-parent, women-led family in this year’s ‘Snapper’ spot. A festive ad that System1’s analysis has revealed is the retailer’s most effective in three years.

Now, I’m not saying it’s because John Lewis directly challenged stereotypes that its ad is performing well. But as Kantar has shown in its Gender Unstereotype Metric, prepared for the Unstereotype Alliance, ads that score highly for progressive gender portrayals perform better on short- and long-term brand metrics, including purchase intent, brand power and credibility scores.

today, there’s a growing understanding that taking more of a risk in the short term and over-indexing in some way is arguably less risky in the long term – if you stay the course.

I wonder, if Asda re-ran its Christmas ad now, would it land differently? As Jessica Myers, CMO at The Very Group, comments: “It is vital that the changing dynamics of family life are considered within marketing and, where it’s right for the customer and the brand, directly reflected. However, this is not the only way – consumers don’t always want or need to see their lives reflected back at them.” It’s true: women as well as men complained about that Asda ad. Was it a case of reality bites, and what those women really wanted was escapism?

It’s a thought that hints at the inherent tension many marketers face in today’s climate – where should a brand position itself, faced with the pressure to reflect people’s current realities, serve up an aspirational feel-good offering, or push boundaries and challenge stereotypes?

To a large extent, the answer lies within a brand’s customer data, with the insights that are drawn then guiding marketers as to how the brand proposition can best meet the needs of its consumers. Take Amazon’s joyfully non-traditional older-ladies-on-sledges spot. Amazon knows that women spend more money on gifts during the festive period than men. It knows that baby boomer women spend the most of all. And I’m pretty sure it understands that for older women, it’s your female friendships that often carry you through the trials and tribulations of growing older. The ad is a product of these insights, and unlike others, I’m not surprised at all it’s been scoring so well in terms of its potential to drive long-term brand growth and impact short-term sales.

Another example of the importance of customer data and insight: At Very, whose average customer is a 42-year-old working mother juggling time and finances, research has revealed the brand’s customers share a particular approach to life. “Despite external pressures and uncertainties, the people who shop with us want to make life as good as it can be – using ingenuity, individuality and creativity to make life bigger and brighter for themselves and their families,” explains Myers. And it’s that insight around which Very’s Christmas ad this year, ‘Let’s Make it Sparkle’, has been built. (Analysis by System1 shows the spot has delivered above industry benchmarks, resonating powerfully with Very’s target audience.)

Asda’s customer chief on the ‘bigger punch’ of value and quality in its Bublé-fronted Christmas ad

Festive sweet spot

For brands with a broad target audience, it can be hard to find a festive sweet spot that isn’t just middle-of-the-road stuff, albeit with extra sprinkles on top. “Marketers feel under pressure to deliver at Christmas, so they either aim for the low-hanging fruit or feel they’ve only got one execution, and to make it count, they need to steer a really careful course, avoiding doing anything that might be seen as divisive,” says Dom Dwight, marketing director for Yorkshire Tea.

“It’s little wonder, therefore, that a lot of advertising plays it safe. But then there’s risk in not taking risks too,” Dwight adds when I ask whether some brands are missing a trick this Christmas by not leaning into the very female face of festive stress.

That said, statistics reveal British men are doing more around the household than ever, even if it’s still less than women. Yes, in this year’s crop of Christmas ads we’ve seen men cooking (hat tip Morrisons), but there’s not much other flipping of gender stereotypes happening (e.g. it’s still mum and her little girl doing the Christmas shopping at Sainsbury’s). Is there an argument marketers should be targeting men more at Christmas? Could doing so help shift some of the seasonal mental load from women? “I think this would be great to see – done well, it could be a really positive and differentiated way to cut through at a very crowded time,” says Dwight. “But, if delivered clumsily, you could leave women in your audience feeling sidelined and even insulted, while the men you hoped to represent just feel patronised.”

And so this brings us back to that Asda spot from a decade ago, and the reality that the supermarket’s Christmas ads since have played things far more safe. I suppose my thought here is that backlash was something you absolutely avoided as a brand back then. In contrast, today, there’s a growing understanding that taking more of a risk in the short term and over-indexing in some way is arguably less risky in the long term – if you stay the course.

And even though I love this year’s Asda offering, as a mother of two young ones, with ageing parents and a full-time job, as I head into the so-called Christmas ‘break’, there’s definitely a part of me that wishes the supermarket chain had stood by the bold stake it put in the ground a decade ago. I’d like to put MY feet up!