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Christmas ad campaigns have become headline-worthy moments in the British national calendar, hailed by pundits and awaited by an eager public. The fact that they are now teased, like big-screen cinema releases, is proof enough that, in calendar terms, the major-retailer Christmas ad is a seasonal event in itself.
This year, two ads so far have garnered much attention. John Lewis’s Snapper the Perfect Tree features a young boy who plants what he is told is a Christmas tree seed, only to watch it grow into a giant, sentient Venus flytrap. With operatic flair, the plant sings and dances its way into the family’s hearts.
In contrast to this, M&S’s Love Thismas (Not Thatmas) campaign has celebrities sabotaging traditional Christmas rites and activities. Actors Hannah Waddingham and Zawe Ashton respectively shred party hats and bat tree decorations. Queer Eye star Tan France sends board game pieces flying into a fish tank. And the pop star, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, takes a culinary blow torch to the cards she’s meant to be writing.
There is, of course, much to dislike about Christmas. It has long been associated with destructive consumption, environmental harm, workplace exploitation including modern slavery and even increasingly divisive culture wars. Nonetheless, Christmas ad producers seem to have become adept at combining commerce with the heartwarming message that this is a time of year when everyone shares responsibility for each other’s happiness and wellbeing.
In my recent book, Organizing Christmas, I show that, whatever misgivings people might have, there remains good cause to welcome the festive season. The excesses it promotes are still underpinned by the idea that generosity, compassion and empathy are values that matter.
John Lewis’s Snapper has been hailed as something of a departure from their past Christmas offerings. The message nonetheless remains that openness to and inclusion of others is the true meaning of the season – even if they happen to be a giant carnivorous plant
Somewhat in contrast, the takeaway of the M&S ad is that we should prioritise more “me time” at yuletide. Moreover, unlike the John Lewis offering, the M&S ad, with its emphasis on glitzy celebrities and adult-only fun, appears to be targeting – relatively narrowly – the much-maligned metropolitan elite, albeit one slightly shorter on cash than usual. The ad therefore encourages its viewers to self-indulge while they can get away with it, the festive dreams and traditions of others be damned.
This has provoked a backlash from more conservative commentators.
The vocal headteacher and former chair of the Department for Education’s social mobility commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, wrote a letter of complaint to M&S. She accused the retailer of ignoring “the spirit of Christmas self-sacrifice, gratitude, giving of one’s time and finances to help one’s fellow man”.
This sentiment has found an echo in the media. GB News presenter Mark Dolan described the advert as “wokery at its finest” and a “denigration of a national tradition”.
By contrast, others, including radio presenter James O’Brien and broadcaster James May, have derided Birbalsingh’s comments. To journalist Sonya Thomas’s mind, Birbalsingh has simply “lost the plot”.
Hope at Christmas
My research suggests, however, that Birbalsingh might have a point. The consumer juggernaut that Christmas has become still relies not on what we can get out of the season but on what we can give to and share with others for much of its legitimacy. And that generosity, as a value, does remain integral to understanding the season’s continued popularity.
This is what German philosopher Ernst Bloch might have called the season’s “cultural surplus”. This is a set of ideas that, despite the worst excess of Christmas, stubbornly legitimises the season for the better, sustaining a sense of hope for a more compassionate and generous world.
From a purely commercial point of view, while provoking discussion can enhance a brand’s seasonal presence, the last thing any retailer wants is negative publicity. This is particularly true of flagship Christmas ads, given their ability to contribute to the seasonal uplift in retail. More importantly, though, the ad could have more widespread impact than to tarnish M&S’s reputation.
The problem is that the M&S ad does not just hold these values up to closer scrutiny. Unlike the John Lewis ad, it visibly celebrates the more narcissistic side of Christmas, thereby undermining the credibility of those ideas that have long served to sell us the annual Christmas dream.
On a more progressive note, it might also rightly prompt viewers to critically question just what this Christmas is that we are being sold. This could, in turn, nurture a more open and less self-serving way of embracing the season – and our lives together.
Philip Hancock received funding from the British Academy (SG54347).