Christmas ads rarely do any of the subtle stuff. They tend not to hang about, aiming straight for a firm tug of the heartstrings, thickly layering on themes around family, home, connection and unity. The 2020 crop generally sticks to the same template, but with one crucial, fascinating difference.
Sainsbury’s, Boots, Amazon, John Lewis, Argos and Tesco all feature characters and households from diverse backgrounds, shifting away from the traditional images of white, usually middle-class families in cheery suburban settings.
‘Gravy Song’, the first in a trio of Sainsbury’s ads, does this brilliantly. The ad homes in on a classic theme of nostalgia, but hooks it upon the story of a black British family kept apart by social distancing and reminiscing about Christmases past.
Ditto Amazon’s teen ballet dancer, star of the retail giant’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ spot, performs on the snow-kissed concrete steps of a communal square in the middle of an urban housing estate. She may be a world away from the leafy calm of conventional, semi-detached Adland, but the ad shares the very same cosy reassurance and emotional resonance.
The beauty and great success of these ads is that they’re not purposefully ‘celebrating difference’, being preachy or particularly tokenistic. All they’re really doing is trying to persuade us to buy nice things with our money.
Consciously or not, presenting these images of inclusivity in such an immediately recognisable setting as a Christmas dinner table has given these festive campaigns an added potency.
The messaging remains the same, namely that the holidays are a time for kindness and giving – with the help of your retailer of choice – but woven within all that is another, ultimately more urgent idea that this is what contemporary Britain looks and sounds like.
More than 83% of us now live in cities, multicultural settings where some of the imagery that has been such a mainstay of Christmas ads has often felt as remote as Dickensian ladies strolling around on the arms of moustachioed infantry officers. What Sainsbury’s and the rest are telling us is that shared experiences ultimately define who we are and outweigh any perceived differences.
Of course, the big challenge now is where we go next and whether high street brands will continue with this apparent colour-blind approach to portraying families and the interactions of everyday life.
Hopefully we’ve moved beyond purpose babble and tidy phrases to a truly inclusive age of representation, one that fits into the framework of our inclusive times with a spontaneous flair and barely a second thought beyond that.
This year will doubtless be remembered for lots of things, but Christmas 2020 may yet prove to be one of those big cultural moments, the signifier of a weighty shift in how we see each other. A heart-warming charmer like Gravy Song may well turn out to be one of the most game-changing ads since Budweiser’s ‘Whassup’ campaign 20 years ago.