Christmas advertising is drowning in marketers’ fake tears

Christmas 2021 is shaping up to be an exercise in hyper-emotional brand bullshit, with Coca-Cola even choosing to edit itself out of its own campaign. But don’t worry, the holidays are still coming.

Coca-Cola Holidays Are Coming Christmas truckChristmas is in the air. And with it a shitload of holiday advertising is now circulating menacingly around the toilet bowl about to be flushed down the festive funnel onto a totally expectant nation. Sorry to sound like Scrooge, but Christmas 2021 is shaping up to be a perfect storm of over-indulgent, faux-sentimental, hyper-emotional brand bullshit. And we all know why.

There is the general effect of Christmas which always has marketing managers reaching for the bright red “John Lewis” joystick. There is the incremental impact of years of research that clearly shows that brand building that focuses on emotion works best to drive long-term demand finally sinking in. There is the continued purpose jerk-fest in which brands outdo each other to under-promote their brands, while over-doing their culturally appropriate community commitments. And there is an 18-month pandemic to dampen industry cheeks still further with even more artificial tears.

It’s going to be very long Christmas.

And at the very top of this year’s festive horseshit Christmas tree we find Coca-Cola and its celebration of the “real magic of human connections”. Bah humbug. It’s entirely typical for a company’s press release to make its next big ad campaign sound like Ben Hur. Marketers are marketers, after all. But I’m struggling to remember when a build-up so big has ever been made for such a mundane, pointless little campaign.

“This is our first Christmas campaign under the new ‘Real Magic’ brand philosophy for Coca-Cola,” global chief marketing officer Manolo Arroyo explained earlier this month.

“Coca-Cola has always believed in the magic of Christmas and this year our campaign celebrates the real magic of human connections. With a simple and uplifting message of unity, inclusion and positivity at its heart, it aims to remind us that all we need for a magical Christmas is shared moments with community and the ones we love.”

A boy realises his new apartment has no fireplace or chimney. Boo! He has an idea to use cardboard boxes to build one. Yay! He builds one. Wow! A lonely old lady receives a present via the new chimney. Sniff! Everyone meets at the boy’s apartment for Christmas lunch. Happy holidays!

The only problem is that this is not a Coke ad. Literally. There is a telling half second opening when the back of a Coke lorry can be glimpsed departing the shot, screen right. It’s another 45 seconds before Coke makes a reappearance in its own ad sitting forlornly at the edge of a table, almost an afterthought.

Another 45 seconds later (it’s a long ad) an empty box of Coke is glimpsed for two seconds. Then a couple of bottles turn up at the final lunch along with a closing logo. I counted Coke’s peripheral presence in 12 seconds of the two minutes 45 seconds ad – 7%. Once they cut this epic down to media reality of 30 seconds Coke might not even make it into its own ad.

I know, I know – you don’t need the product and logo to be in every frame to have an effective ad. But you really cannot get away with this kind of Christmas wank unless you are John Lewis or you have a really good ad. And Coca-Cola has neither.

John Lewis is a unique case because it invented the seasonal, emotion heavy Christmas milestone campaign in this country. They create their own special media context each year in which millions watch the new John Lewis ad already knowing it’s a John Lewis ad, before it even begins. Distinctiveness is baked in.

John Lewis opts for escapism with ‘most merchandised’ Christmas ad

Other brands can get in on the Christmas magic,but they need a perfectly balanced flight plan of narrative sweep and emotional payload. And that’s a rare thing. Yellow Pages and its kissing kids in 1992. Gap’s Christmas dancers in 1999. M&S and its infamous food pornography from 2006. Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot in recent years.

You might question the emotional charge of Kevin the Carrot or M&S dribbling gravy over its dirty little boiled potatoes. But that’s because you, like most marketers, have taken the concept of emotion too literally. When Uncle Les and Uncle Pete told us that emotion builds brands they were not just talking about the little boy weeping over his lost puppy. Yes, sadness does count. But so does fear. And surprise. And awe. And craving. And joy. And satisfaction. And excitement. And humour.

We have spent the last decade thinking emotional advertising had to be Emotional. With a capital E. And a hug. From your Dad. After you saved the dolphin. And its baby. On its birthday.

It’s clear as more and more brands jump on the big emotional Christmas train that it’s starting to get very crowded on-board. And when everyone is zigging in the same direction we all know what always happens next. John Lewis invented this train ride back in 2010 with ‘A Tribute to Givers’. Twelve years is a long time in advertising. Perhaps a change is due?

Other than a proper spectrum of emotions, the great Christmas ads of yore had something else too: they managed to be distinctive. Each looked like the brand and not like any other. Whether it was the use of a brand character (Kevin), a tone of voice (M&S), or the product itself as Christmas hero (Gap and Yellow Pages) – these ads all delivered an emotional punch, but did it with a distinctive boxing glove all their own.

Coke and Christmas

The Coke campaign looks like all the other generic attempts to pull on our emotional heartstrings. And the abject absence of the brand within its own ad means that it will surely fail to do the business for Coke. And that’s very odd, because if anyone understands the power of distinctive Christmas advertising it has to be Coke.

The Sundblom Santa was the original attempt to create a distinctive,yet emotional and effective Christmas campaign. Back in the 1930s the eponymous brand was mostly a summer beverage. In an attempt to spread the seasonality of the brand’s appeal, the Coca-Cola Company hired Michigan artist Haddon Sundblom to create a series of ads that portrayed Coke as a festive drink too.

But the cleverness of that campaign, which ran from 1931 to 1964, was not only showing Santa drinking Coke, but fashioning Santa as being made from Coke.

Coca-Cola launches first Christmas campaign under ‘Real Magic’ brand platform

In the 19th Century the original Santa Claus and his doppelgänger, Father Christmas, were just as likely to be seen in green or blue as red. It was only when Sundblom turned his commercial eye to Coke’s commission that Santa steadfastly became a figure in trademark red and white, with a belt fashioned from the colour of Coke itself.

And that distinctive capability has – until now – been carried over into Coke’s contemporary Christmas campaigns. For more than 20 years the brand has signalled Christmas with the same winning, emotional, distinctive formula. You don’t even need me to write the next paragraph because you already know what I am talking about.

Snow is falling. There are warm white lights in the distance. Glimpsed through the snow, a long convoy of Coke trucks snake into town. Red and white and enormous. You hear the “Holidays are coming” from the choir before they even start singing it. Red and white through the trees. Lots of Christmas lights. Children in winter hats smile. More trucks. Santa winks. Red and white. Buy Coke. For Christmas. Holidays are Coming.

It’s not very cool. It’s not at all new. In fact, it is very old and very uncool. But that’s kind of the point. For older generations it’s a reminder of Christmas long gone. For new generations it’s the sense that there is something deeper, older that they need to understand. It is a potent mix of half a dozen emotions: joy, nostalgia, craving, excitement, adoration, relief, satisfaction.

And it’s a campaign that is so Coca-Cola that it owns a whole quadrant of the festive perceptual map. It’s the reason why this boring, entirely predictable campaign was voted the most effective last year by Kantar. Because it works.

And it’s also why, if you read the small print of Coca-Cola’s big plans for their new Real Magic campaign, you discover a small caveat. The company still plans to run its Holidays are Coming ads alongside its new, generic work.

In a perfect encapsulation of the current state of marketing Coca-Cola will run a purposeful, generic, industry appropriate campaign, but cover their commercial asses with a campaign devised from the 90s that has its heritage in the 30s.

Anyway, holidays are indeed coming.