The brilliant Hannah Waddingham for Baileys’ Christmas spot, 2023
From Asda to Waitrose, we review the big-name Christmas ads of 2023 and identify some common themes. And later, we get the industry’s reaction, too.
Halloween’s over, Bonfire Night’s been and gone, and Mariah Carey’s already shed her spooky costume to scream the festive season into existence for another year. It’s time, in other words, for the Christmas ads of 2023.
Last year the focus was on themes of joy and nostalgia, with the occasional nod to budgetary concerns. So, what do this year’s commercials look like?
Well, if you’re a fan of cheesy music, you’ll be in hog heaven: 2023’s batch of tv spots is packed with it. Yes, there’s the odd nod to contemporary pop, but it really is drowned out by a torrent of cheesy hits, mainly from the 1980s.
Another theme that clearly emerges is: “Cost of living crisis? What cost of living crisis?” Most of the big brands are carefully side-stepping the reality that most of us have a lot less ready cash to spend this year. In their ads, family tables are piled high with food, and there are plenty of expensive presents to go around. No one seems bothered about whether they can pay the gas bill.
There are ways to celebrate consumption without coming off as crass, of course. One is to lean into the whole ‘giving, not receiving’ aspect of Christmas and the importance of kindness. But that’s a difficult balance to strike, lest you seem too opportunistic. At least a couple of ads have managed to pull this off this year, though.
More fundamentally, most of 2023’s ads focus on homely activities and getting the family together. It’s the little things that matter, they stress: sitting around a table, having a laugh, enjoying each other’s company.
So those are the themes; what of the individual ads themselves? Read on as we dissect the ones that have made the biggest impression on us so far.
M&S: Love Thismas (Not Thatmas)
Firstly, we have to address the elephant in the room. The M&S Christmas ad is usually the feel-good highlight of the season. But this year’s offering has been hugely controversial and has already been pulled from YouTube.
The brand failed to read the room this year, with a spot featuring expensively dressed celebrities “hilariously” attacking Christmas traditions. To a cover version of Meatloaf’s I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), we see the stars blowtorch a pile of Christmas cards, upturn a board game, shred some shiny gold hats, and attack an Elf on the Shelf with a roll of wrapping paper.
Complaints have flooded in, including a prominent London headteacher who wrote an open letter saying that M&S had “put two fingers up” to the “values of decency” she was trying to instil in her inner-city pupils. And this was only the half of it. In a separate controversy, an image posted by the brand depicted burning party hats that matched the colours of the Palestinian flag. (Yes, most of us assumed this was a coincidence, but it points to a lack of careful editing at the very least.)
In short, this one has really gone down like a lead balloon. Admittedly, the ad created by newly appointed creative agency Mother and director Ally Pankiw, best known for Black Mirror, has its admirers, too. Judith Woods, for one, has written a spirited defence in the Telegraph. But while for some brands, such controversy would be seen as a good thing, we’re guessing that wasn’t what M&S hoped for. At time of writing, you can still view it on the Mother website.
Morrisons: Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now
It’s a tried-and-tested formula. Show families painstakingly putting a Christmas celebration together, bit by bit, until everyone gathers around the table and the glorious feast is unveiled – all to a banging, uplifting soundtrack. You need an original gimmick to pull everything together, though, which isn’t easy.
This year, however, Morrisons has found a winner in an ad masterminded by Leo Burnett. The concept is simple but effective: oven gloves are transformed into puppets, who sing along with the soundtrack, Starship’s 1987 hit song Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. Everything is executed perfectly, and it’s just a whole heap of fun.
Sainsbury’s: What does Santa eat for his Christmas dinner?
Here’s another original twist on the Christmas ad. In this 60-second advert created by New Commercial Arts, a curious girl steps up to the in-store tannoy at Sainsbury’s to ask: “What does Santa eat for his Christmas dinner?” Her question sparks a flurry of responses from Sainsbury’s workers, each offering their suggestions of festive dishes, showstoppers and treats. As they share their recommendations, items magically appear on Santa’s Christmas dinner table.
Back in the store, pop icon Rick Astley has his own idea about what Santa might like, suggesting: “How about some cheese?” One of the workers responds: “C’mon Rick, cheese before pudding, you know the rules”. Then another cheekily sings: “…and so do I”.
If you’re familiar with the ’80s star’s big hit, you may find this hilarious. If you’re too young or too old to get it, well, never mind. Because as we previously established, this year, ’80s pop rules the Christmas ads. So there.
TK Maxx: Festive Farm
In recent years, we’ve gotten used to seeing a lot of farm-based ads at Christmas. For supermarkets it’s a way to remind people of where the food comes from, plus farming in general feels quite nostalgic and homely anyway.
TK Maxx has also been getting in on the act, and its 2023 Christmas ad tells the story of farm animals celebrating Christmas in their special new knits. To the soundtrack of Eve and Gwen Stefani’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind, we see a turtle neck-clad alpaca busking a crossbody bag, swiftly followed by a pair of ducks rocking Harry Styles-inspired pearls, an elegant silk scarf and suave pink bow tie. Which, historically, is not a sentence that’s been written by many people.
Bringing up the rear is a hedgehog in a pink cashmere hat, followed by the goat from the 2020 TK Maxx Christmas campaign (for those who’ve really been paying attention). A bit of banter follows between the farmer and his wife, which, in all honesty, fails to totally land. But really, who doesn’t like to see animals dressed up in clothes?
Sports Direct: Dream Big It’s Christmas
Sports Direct’s ad focuses on the ambitions of a little girl whose Christmas wish is to become the world’s top sports star. In a series of playful dream sequences, Macy takes on a series of sporting heroes at their own game and eviscerates each and every one of them.
Directed by Fred Again‘s creative director, LOOSE, the ad features an array of home-grown sporting talent covering football, boxing and athletics. Again, we get an ’80s soundtrack in the form of a reworked version of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
This campaign doesn’t really sit in the heartwarming category: no one ever thought humiliating the competition was the “true meaning of Christmas”. And while encouraging kids to follow their dreams is a good thing, this ad doesn’t really do that either. Rather than focusing on a specific sport and putting in the long hours of practice needed to succeed, the sequences are more idle fantasies of kids beating the grown-ups.
That’s fun as far as it goes, and the child actor does a brilliant job of it. But the subtle implication of the ad as a whole seems to be: buy the right branded clothes, and the rest will follow. Which for a company with a dubious image (a 2016 parliamentary inquiry accused it of being run like a Victorian workhouse) doesn’t quite sit right with us.
Those of us who were born before the internet took off don’t really get it. But Gens X and Alpha find endless fun making videos for TikTok, YouTube and just each other. And Argos leans into this brilliantly in its Christmas ad.
It’s the latest in a series of commercials starring Connie, a disturbingly lifelike blonde doll, and Trevor, a toy dinosaur. It shows Connie in a sparkling pink jumpsuit doing an epic dance across a Christmas table as Trevor films her. As disco classic Le Freak by Chic plays, Connie struts past a series of Argos products, including a hairdryer, a Sonos speaker and a cocktail shaker.
It all brings the fun of dancing to cheesy music in your kitchen to life, and you don’t have to be a TikToker to appreciate that. Plus, the inclusion of Argos products is subtle enough that it gets the message across without being jarring. Developed by The&Partnership, the film was directed by Traktor and animated by Untold, with the characters voiced by People Just Do Nothing’s Ruth Bratt and This Country’s Charlie Cooper.
Waitrose & Partners: It’s time for the good stuff
Of all the Christmas ads this year, Waitrose’s is the furthest away from acknowledging the cost of living crisis. Presumably, because they figure people who are short of money wouldn’t shop here in the first place.
Consequently, the target audience of this ad, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, is clearly people who want to spend the maximum amount of money to have the best possible time. It’s not exactly the Hunger Games, where the rich in the capital gorge themselves stupid as the masses quietly starve in the districts. But it’s not a million miles from it, either.
Just in case the message of untrammelled consumption wasn’t clear enough, the ad is soundtracked with the Depeche Mode electro classic Just Can’t Get Enough. And while the celebrations here are punctuated by minor comedy pratfalls, there’s no sense of homeliness or warmth of human kindness on show, just a message that “as long as the food’s good, everything’s good”. That cheese does look nice, mind.
Boots: Give Joy
Focusing on the joy of giving is a staple of Christmas ads. And the one that does it best this year is Boots. Its quirky spot begins, much like the Sainsbury’s ad, with a girl asking her mum an unusual question. This time, it’s: Who gives presents to Santa?
Without further ad, the pair set off on an epic adventure around the world to deliver their own gift to Father Christmas at his North Pole hideout. On their travels, kind strangers help them on their way, and in return for their generosity, they are given gifts from Boots.
It’s obviously a far-fetched concept, but the performances are convincing, and the direction is speedy enough to whisk you along in a whirlwind of silly fun. The payoff lands. And that’s pretty much all we can say. Put simply, it’s an original idea, executed well… and who wouldn’t want that?
Lidl: A Magical Christmas
Big-budget CGI-heavy spectaculars are a bit thin on the ground in this Christmas crop of ads. But Lidl’s is one of the exceptions. It tells the story of an adorable raccoon who looks through a window to see a family decorating a Christmas tree. Suddenly, the family dog accidentally smashes the boy’s much-loved monkey Christmas decoration. Wanting to cheer her son up, the mother picks up a cuddly toy at Lidl but accidentally drops it on the cycle ride home.
Having spotted the toy monkey in the snow, the racoon grabs it and proceeds to cross the city by any means possible: climbing road signs, riding the tube, and sailing on a log across a river. Finally, he enters the family home and puts the toy under the Christmas tree.
The moral of the story is pretty straightforward: small acts of kindness matter. It ties in with Lidl’s Toy Bank initiative, a nationwide donation drive that last year saw over 80,000 toys donated to children who might not have otherwise received them.
Asda: Pop The Bublé
As we’ve already established, cheesy music is a big theme of 2023’s Christmas ads, and you can’t get much cheesier than Michael Bublé. Asda is making the most of the star, first introducing him in this teaser ad created by Havas London.
The spot sees Asda colleagues relaxing in a break room mid-shift until they’re disturbed by an unusual ‘gurgling’ sound as the clock ticks to midnight. Journeying through a fantastical festive warehouse to find its source, they eventually reach a door marked ‘MB inside. Do not open ’til 1.11.23′.
As the door swings open, a lone figure is revealed, silhouetted in the spotlight: it’s Bublé, who turns to the camera and breaks into the classic It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. “Shall we?” he implores with a smile, and the words ‘To be continued’ appear on the screen.
In the next ad, the singer has apparently been installed as the Chief Quality Officer for Asda. He then proceeds to tour the store, meeting colleagues, checking various forms of party food, and gently sending himself up as a genial boss with an inflated sense of self-importance. Overall, it’s pretty slight stuff, but somehow, the whole thing manages to look amazing and feel like a mini-Hollywood epic. The fact that it was shot by Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi might have something to do with that.
Baileys: Tis The Season With a Festive ‘Choctail’
Advertising alcohol is a tough task. Because while most of us drink in moderation, booze is also associated with drunkenness, hangovers, bad behaviour and all sorts of other negative consequences. Baileys, though, almost has a free pass. No one ever went on a Baileys bender: you generally think of it as a one-off treat, especially around Christmas. And the brand leans into this masterfully in a sumptuous, family-friendly ad starring Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham and MOBO Awards performing choir, the Gold Vocal Collective.
There’s not much to it. Hannah Waddingham takes up the role of conductor for the choir, as they sing ‘Baileys’ acapella while a Baileys Choc-tail is made. But it works brilliantly and just goes to show that you don’t always need a brilliant concept for a successful ad. Sometimes, people just like to see a bit of glamour, a bit of fun, and a sense of festive cheer: no overthinking required.