Saturday, 8 November 2014

Magic, Sparkle & Penguins: Some thoughts on Christmas Ads

I've just watched the M&S Christmas ad on twitter - #followthefairies. And yesterday I watched the John Lewis 'Monty the penguin'ad. I'm a vicar, so perhaps I should be railing about the fact that they don't once mention Jesus, the nativity, or even peace on earth and goodwill to all?

In fact, both brought a tear to my eyes. Yes, I am that soppy. And that is of course exactly what was meant to happen to someone who is solidly part of the ABC1 middle-aged comfortably well-off target market of both retailers.

Its an interesting phenomenon, this ad-designed-explicitly-to-go-viral-on-social-media genre. As someone who used to work in brand management and commissioned a few TV adverts in my time, I can make a guess at the huge resources that have been put behind these mini-epics.  And I admire them as pieces of creative work, and - yes - very good marketing campaigns designed to make us spend more. I'm not going to knock them for that - its their job.

But what of the 'real meaning of Christmas'? What of Jesus' birth?

Perhaps most important for us who try, in the church, to communicate to these same people the message of Christmas - WHY did those ads make me cry? What bit of me were they touching?

(I am deliberately stepping back from the next question hovering on the tip of my tongue, and perhaps on yours - how can we exploit that ourselves? Because if we move from 'yuck, how can people simply use Christmas as a commercial opportunity to exploit?' to 'how we can use those ideas to exploit it ourselves?' we are on a very slippery slope indeed. Let's not go there today.)

But my main reaction to those ads was NOT outrage, or annoyance, or dissatisfaction. It was a tearful sentimentality, a sense of joy and upliftedness. And yet I'm a Christian - I'm a vicar, whose job is to get people to think of Christ at Christmas. Should I be embarrassed to have been so manipulated? Should I be condemning these ads?

Actually, I don't think so. Lovely as it would be if such major advertising budgets happened to publicise my own agenda at the same time as their own, telling people the Christmas story is our job as Christians, not the job of the M&S or John Lewis advertising agencies.

In fact, I think I'd be more concerned if one of those ads used the nativity for its own purposes. Wouldn't you? That would cause more of a problem for us, I think - and I give them credit for probably having thought that one through, and decided it would be unethical to use the sacred story of a religion for their own ends.

So why was I moved? In the John Lewis ad - #MontyThePenguin - the bit that got me was the end, when the little boy is revealed to be so pleased to have received another penguin soft toy, almost exactly the same as the one he already has. OK, OK, it is about buying more stuff for the kids that they don't 'need'. But I have a little boy like that, whose best present ever would be another teddy bear, identical to the one he has, because he loves it so much. Its not really about endless stuff its about knowing your child, and giving them the one thing that will really delight them. Its the thought that counts.

The M&S ad is a lot more cold-bloodedly commercial, and rather less moving for that. But the moment at the end when the fairies switch off the TV and avert the incipient tantrum by making it snow is every middle-class parent's dream - and the little bit of romcom at the end was the perfect finishing touch.

So yeah, I'm completely soppy, easily manipulated, and LOVE Christmas - magic, sparkle, penguins, the lot. And do you know what? I think all that cultural excitement around our Christian celebration helps, rather than hinders, our proclamation.

They aren't doing our job for us - but they are doing a very good job of building the excitement, the anticipation, of Advent for us.

People want magic, sparkle, sentiment; they want their children to be happy; they want joy, anticipation, a sense that the humdrum everyday is not all that life is about.

If we can't build on that to make our message heard, we need to look closely at what we are doing as churches, rather than moan about the warm-up act.

Last year someone came to my church for Christmas, and admitted slightly embarrassed to just be there for that one day that she came because you do Christmas properly. I think that was one of the highest compliments Ive ever received.

So I hope we dont hear a lot of Christian grumbling about the commercialisation of Christmas this year. (If you want to grumble, do something practical instead match your spend on Christmas with your giving to a charity like Christian Aid).

Instead, lets concentrate on doing Christmas properly. Celebrate, tell the story, show how that magic/sparkle/joy (Ok, perhaps we cant offer penguins) isnt just a commercial confection for one day only, but is available to us all because of what happened that first Christmas.


  1. I'm not a Christian, but I have always thought this was brilliantly produced and love watching it!

  2. Thanks Miranda for slightly alleviating my grumpiness! You're right of course. Only real issue I have is that watching them multiple times, every day, for six weeks the magic & sparkle is rather jaded before we even get to Christmas! Watching Downton last night they were on every break. I think advert fatigue for the many who watch at least some commercial TV most days can be a problem, and is part of the reason many are actually glad Christmas is 'over' after Christmas Day so they can get on with the post-Christmas retail season on Boxing Day!

  3. That's a very good point, shyoungs! i tend to watch mainly BBC channels so yes, I guess I have insulated myself from the boredom of watching any ad so many times...

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  5. (Sorry bad grammar in last post) Can't agree more, our retail driven Christmas needs to be embraced by the church, we can play our part in linking the magic, the sparkle and even the penguins to the wonder of the Christ child.