22nd January 2024

Christmas in review: Unwrapping the UK’s Christmas ad obsession

Xavier Genest
Content Writer

The art of festive advertising: a British phenomenon

Editor’s note: We know, we know, Christmas is over. But we thought this one was too good to make you wait a whole year to read. 

The jingle of bells, the scent of pine, and the gentle glow of fairy lights – it’s that magical time of the year. No, not just Christmas, but the unveiling of festive adverts that grip the UK in a tinsel-clad frenzy.

At this point, it’s common knowledge that Brits take festive commercials seriously – so seriously in fact that a third are just as excited about the premiere of a Christmas advert as they are about a blockbuster film release. It’s a cultural phenomenon that’s become as quintessentially British as a cup of tea, and it shows no sign of stopping: advertisers are anticipated to allocate a record-breaking £9.5 billion for the upcoming Christmas season.

Why has UK Christmas advertising snowballed (pardon the pun) into a festive hype train? And how have brands continued to tug on the heartstrings of the British public year on year? 

The evolution of Christmas advertising

The best place to start is the beginning. So, let’s rewind to the early days when Christmas adverts were more straightforward than deciphering a cracker joke. They were all about showcasing product features and prices — sprinkled with a festive touch. 

The first memorable Christmas TV advert didn’t come until 1995, when Coca-Cola released its iconic ‘Holidays are Coming’ ad. 

Those lit-up trucks have now become synonymous with the season, and mark a yearly staple in the festive advertising calendar. At the time, it gave a glimpse into the potential pulling power that Christmas TV advertising could hold over the public. 

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and the rise of Christmas advertising still very much revolved around product placement. Marks and Spencer dominated British screens during this period, tantalising us with mouthwatering festive food and drink selections.

It wasn’t until 2007 when John Lewis’s inaugural tear-jerker, ‘The Shadow’, marked a pivotal moment. 

Rather than focusing on product, the advert drew on sentiment — painting a picture of people finding perfect gifts for their loved ones. The advert created quite the media buzz, and John Lewis continued to reap the rewards: every £1 spent on advertising delivered a return of £5 for John Lewis in the first few years of its Christmas TV campaigns. 

Unsurprisingly, other brands caught on — and Christmas advertising is no longer just about selling products; it’s about telling heartwarming stories that became as anticipated as the 25th of December. 

The power of emotional connection and human storytelling

We’re at a point where brands aren’t even advertising their actual products, and yet see the returns of increased revenue and sales every Christmas. So what makes these TV campaigns so effective? Emotion, of course: nearly half of Brits admit to shedding a tear or two over these festive commercials. John Lewis demonstrated the power of storytelling that resonates on a personal level, and its ability to evoke emotions that go beyond the transactional. 

Peel back the layers of these adverts, and you’ll find a common thread. Whether it’s the joy of giving, the warmth of family gatherings, or the nostalgia for festive traditions, these adverts tap into the emotional wellspring that defines the holiday season. It’s all about how you feel rather than what you buy — and that tangible experience is what enraptures the entirety of the British population. 

Continuing to push beyond products to modern values

That said, in an era where the cost of living crisis and other socioeconomic challenges loom large, the traditional themes are facing a modern-day reckoning. Brands now tread a tightrope to cut through the festive noise without appearing tone-deaf to the struggles of everyday life.

Brands are looking to weave narratives that resonate with the concerns and values of today’s audiences. The focus extends beyond the joy of giving to themes of resilience, kindness, and empathy.  

As advertisers continue to shift the tone, they’re pushing boundaries beyond showcasing products to embodying values. The narratives aim not just to sell, but to inspire, uplift, and resonate with a broader spectrum of emotions. 

Emotional story telling doesn’t have to only exist at Christmas time. At Branch Road, we lead with narrative work that intersects human hearts and cold hard business logic to truly resonate with your audiences. 

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