The best and worst Christmas ads 2021: Marketing Week picks

With just over a week left to go until Christmas, Marketing Week shares its take on this year’s Christmas stars and festive flops.

Russell Parsons, editor-in-chief

Best: Waitrose – ‘You Can Taste When It’s a Waitrose Christmas’

Three things dominate most people’s thoughts and activities at Christmas – the desire for reflection, belonging and indulgence. And it’s facilitation of the latter where brands can really play a part.

As much as many have moved towards benevolence in their campaigns over recent years, there are few opportunities in a year when people are willing to buy stuff they don’t need.

For supermarkets, a great ad can push an ajar door wide open. People are willing to spend more, and on more items. Tap into this, position yourself as the home for deserved luxury and make people laugh along with you, and you might have the perfect Christmas ad.

This year’s Waitrose campaign ticks all three boxes. In summary the ad’s message is: the best thing about Christmas is enjoying food you wouldn’t ordinarily dream of eating and Waitrose is the perfect partner for such extravagance. In other words, serving a special occasion in a way only it could at a time of year when that really matters. It might be a message from a brand whose audience is limited to those who are able to really splash out to mark the occasion but for those that are – it’s a great ad.

Worst: Sainsbury’s – ‘A Christmas to Savour’

In contrast, Sainsbury’s has served something up that doesn’t attempt to put it at the heart of anything. It’s an example of the post lockdown equivalent of the ads that ran last March when every brand wanted to assure that they felt your pain and were there for you.

Instead, it’s the most prominent example of the “rejoice, we can gather again” sub-genre of Christmas ads that state the obvious without presenting any sense of what part they play in making Christmas better.

Initial scenes of festive jollity are first frozen and then unfrozen by the ad’s end – a visual metaphor that is meant to communicate how long it’s been since we were able to dictate how we want to spend Christmas, and now that the worst is behind us (omicron variant notwithstanding), it’s our collective responsibility to make it “a Christmas to savour”.

At risk of making light of the very real pain being kept apart caused last year and the joy that being able to see family will bring many, Sainsbury’s is there to help facilitate enjoyment not to capture a mood.

Lucy Tesseras, deputy editor

Best: Diageo – ‘Know when to stop’

As someone who is fond of a tipple or two, whether it’s Christmas or not, I’m a little surprised by my choice of best Christmas ad. But Diageo’s series of responsible drinking animations are the stand out campaign for me this year. They’re quirky and cute, amusing and memorable without a hint of sanctimony.

At a time when most brands are tugging on the heartstrings and trying to make us cry, it’s refreshing to see a bit of humour. The short and snappy videos each focus on a different obsession – binge-watching TV, overdoing the Christmas decorations, eating too many sweet treats – to illustrate how easy it is to overdo it at Christmas. The use of animation brings a light touch to the stories and the fact each is just 10-seconds long means the message is presented clearly without being shouty or aggressive. The choice of soundtrack also creates the perfect rhythm.

It’s hard to encourage responsible drinking without sounding preachy, and it’s all the more difficult to do so at Christmas when all anyone wants to do is kick back with a glass of something festive and enjoy time with friends and family. So cheers to Diageo for hitting the right note.

Worst: Studio – ‘Team Early’

I love Christmas. I love the run up to Christmas, the excitement, the songs, the decorations, the ads, the festive cheer, the thrill of knowing you get to eat a tiny piece of chocolate every day for a month.

But even I draw the line at kicking off Christmas in September when we were still enjoying the last of the summer sunshine and trying to squeeze in one more Aperol spritz in a pub garden.

The online retailer launched its ad in September as its research showed people were keen to get their Christmas shopping done early this year. It’s a fair point given consumers might be a little more cash strapped. But trying to get people to think about Christmas before they’ve even packed away the BBQ or had a chance to dig out their winter coat feels a tad premature.

In Studio’s defence the ad does play on the fact many people will think it’s too early for Christmas, with those going big receiving raised eyebrows and smirks from onlookers. But as cute as #TeamEarly sounds, and as much as I’m all for Christmas, at least wait until pumpkins have been packed away.

Charlotte Rogers, insight editor

Best: Boots – ‘Bags of Joy’

As a woman who will openly admit to spending at least half her wage at Boots, the notion of a never-ending bag of make-up, skincare and perfume was guaranteed to be right up my street.

The brand’s second major campaign this year, following its summer ‘Feel Good as New’ campaign, ‘Bags of Joy’ is the biggest festive campaign from Boots in four years and aims to reach more than 18 million adults. Given the fact the retailer elected not to have a Christmas themed ad last year, this is a major statement of intent.

For me, Jenna Coleman’s character of Joy brings the right amount of sparkle to warm even the most cynical of hearts, as she bosses Christmas with a bag full of all the best gifts. From bubble bath, to perfume, lipstick and cameras, the ad showcases the Boots product range with a sense of charm that is perfectly pitched.

Rational reasoning aside, I didn’t expect for the ad to make me emotional. Maybe I’m going soft in my old age, but I found Joy saving the special present for her Nan at the end of the advert touching. What Boots has done is cleverly tap into our love for people special to us at Christmas, without it feeling saccharine. The advert reminded me of all the special treats my lovely Gran used to buy me. A very welcome memory indeed.

Worst: TK Maxx – ‘Christmas To The Maxx’

I was a big fan of TK Maxx’s ‘The Lil’ Goat’ from Christmas 2020. Not only was she super stylish prancing in her red beret, electric pink jacket and aqua scarf, but let’s be fair she deserved to look good. After all, she’d had a hard year!

I totally get the premise of coming back with a bang for 2021 after Christmas was in effect cancelled last year. And maybe I’m just missing the goat, but this outing from TK Maxx did not live up to my expectations. Maybe it’s more that I don’t like the blue shiny boots, as I’m pretty sure there were better finds in the treasure trove that is TK Maxx the brand could have made the star of the show.

Next year, more goats?

Michaela Jefferson, head of news

Best: Aldi – ‘A Christmas Carrot’

I love Aldi’s Christmas ads. I love Kevin the Carrot. I loved last year’s story of Kevin’s race to get home for Christmas, made all the more intense with the borrowed soundtrack of the Pirate of the Caribbean film franchise.

But this year’s ad, a retelling of the classic Dicken’s story ‘A Christmas Carol’, really got me. I love the addition of a grumpy banana as Ebanana Scrooge, the traditional Christmas backing music, the rhyming narration. I love that the supermarket still sees the value in brand characters and is continuing to double down on that creative strategy. And I love that Aldi has implanted the sense of humour it has become famous for into the ad, with a sneaky shot of Cuthbert the Caterpillar being led away by police.

Even the incredibly cheesy end line – ‘For you to be happy you need to be kind’ – gets me feeling emotional. So bravo to Aldi. It’s not often that I choose to watch an ad more than once, even at Christmas. But this one has me hooked.

Worst: Very – ‘It’s the very best excuse’

A ton of work goes into Christmas advertising, so part of me is reluctant to criticise any one brand for their attempt. Was Very’s Christmas ad this year particularly interesting to watch? Not really. Was the Christmas carolling mildly annoying? Maybe. But it doesn’t stand out as a creative mishap.

Yet, no matter how clever or sensible a strategy Very might argue it was, I can’t get onboard with Christmas ads launching in October. Not just October, but 1 October. October! Ads have been launching earlier every year, but Halloween should always be the stopping point. Not just because it gets ridiculous, but because extending the period really ruins the fun of Christmas. So, sorry Very, but I can’t back your ad this year.

Matthew Valentine – features writer

Best: Sports Direct – ‘Go All Out’

I long to go back to before the slowed-down 80s pop cover version trend and bring back the Sex Pistols for a Christmas ad. Not a slowed-down version with a piano; a proper shouty one with gobbing and pogo dancing. I want a punk Christmas as an antidote to the dreadful, painful cuteness.

The closest I could find to a punk Christmas was the ad from Sports Direct. I’m not a fan of the brand or the experience of shopping in its stores, but for me a mass snowball fight with golfing snipers sums up what we are all surely hoping for this Christmas.

Worst: John Lewis – ‘Unexpected Guest’ and McDonald’s – ‘Imaginary Iggy’

Where to start? A schmaltzy ad with soft filters, probably featuring a child and a toy/alien/friendly monster, over a slowed down cover version of a pop track from my teens, droned out by a young and winsome female vocalist? I didn’t like this 10 years ago and by now it makes me want to hit the television with a cricket bat. Especially after the ads have been on air for a few weeks.

So it’s fistfight for most-hated between John Lewis and McDonald’s this year, with a runners-up gong for Coca-Cola for trying to be cute and failing. Three big-name brands that have been utterly predictable.

Manny Pham, reporter

Best: McDonald’s – ‘Imaginary Iggy’

This ad gets the nod from me simply due to the homage to the Pixar films Toy Story and Monsters Inc.

‘Imaginary Iggy’ shows a little girl’s love fade for her imaginary friend called, you guessed it, Iggy. The adorable monster is almost the same shade of blue as Sully from Monsters Inc. I say this at the risk of sounding like a monster racist because they clearly do not look alike.

Couple this with a sweet piano-accompanied rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and you got me hook, line and sinker.

For me, Christmas ads need to emotionally take you somewhere you haven’t been for a while, and remind you the world isn’t full of angry, red, vein-bursting people.

Worst: Apple – ‘Saving Simon’

Who builds a snowman with their bare hands? A family of cannibal psychopaths of course. Apart from that, this ad doesn’t really shift the dial when it comes to Christmas advertising, but to be completely fair, hardly any of this year’s crop do it for me.

I’m picking on it simply because it was obviously shot somewhere in LA with people who have never seen snow before, hence the gloveless construction of the snowman. But it looks mightily impressive to be all shot on an iPhone, so props for that.



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