Do retailers’ lacklustre festive ads mean the Grinch really has stolen Christmas?

With most retailers having launched their Christmas ad campaigns, there is a distinct lack of festive cheer as wider struggles on the high street hit brands’ moods and pockets.

If you cover retail marketing, the two weeks at the beginning of November are the busiest of the year as retailers launch their bid for Christmas sales success. As soon as the clock hits midnight on 1 November, all thoughts of Halloween disappear and attention turns squarely to the most important time of year, Christmas.

Yet this year, it appears the Grinch rather than Santa Claus may have been whispering in retail marketers’ ears. There’s a distinct lack of memorable festive advertising, with brands eschewing the blockbuster films and epic storytelling for continuations of previous campaigns or bringing back old favourites, such as singing boxes (in the case of Amazon) or talking carrots (over at Aldi).

It would be wrong to bemoan some consistency. Marketers have tended to spend all year harping on about how important it is to have a consistent marketing message, only to throw that strategy out the window at the mere mention of Christmas.

Plus, consistency doesn’t have to be boring. Tesco’s campaign this year, which uses the same strapline and creative idea as in 2017, is a real joy. And I’m still enjoying the adventures of Kevin the Carrot.

The shift away from festive blockbusters has been playing out for a few years. Sainsbury’s, which used to go up against John Lewis on the blockbuster stakes, dropped that strategy last year, with marketing director Mark Given saying it was a decision based on the fact that “brands are built by consistency over time”.

Marks & Spencer also isn’t expected to stray too far from its marketing’s recent creative look and feel when its Christmas ad launches. Don’t expect Paddington or Mrs Claus to be putting in an appearance this year.

That retailers are pulling back from big Christmas ads mirrors the malaise in retail, particularly on the high street, this year. A number of brands have fallen into administration, others are having to shut stores or batten down the hatches as profits dwindle.

Debenhams’ marketing boss Richard Cristofoli probably put it most succinctly when he said: “In the current retail climate in the UK, how can I look a colleague in the eye when we’re all being told we need to manage costs carefully and make sure we’re driving a simplicity focus and efficiency, and then tell them I’ve spent millions on making a vanity project TV ad?”

READ MORE: Debenhams moves away from ‘vanity project’ TV ads in favour of an experiential Christmas campaign

Creative is not the only area taking a hit. Media spend, the bigger investment, also looks set to slow. ITV, in its latest results this morning (7 November), warned that total ad spend was likely to fall by about 3% in the fourth quarter.

That fall is likely to be even bigger in December. The Guardian reports that ITV is preparing for a decline of up to 8% in the final month of the year, with only November and Black Friday providing a bright spot in the quarter.

Carolyn McCall, ITV’s CEO, says: “We are seeing some softening in [TV advertising] due to the increasingly uncertain economic environment and, as a result, we expect total advertising to be down.”

There are likely to be other areas getting more spend – digital and in-store/experiential the most obvious examples. But a decline in TV ad spend is indicative of brands taking a more cautious approach this year whether because of Brexit uncertainty, growing competition or wider struggles on the high street. Let’s just hope the bah-humbug attitude doesn’t dampen shoppers’ Christmas spirits too far or leave Santa with an empty sack.