This year’s much-hyped Christmas ads have faced a big backlash with complaints over plagiarism, blasphemy, swearing and ‘political correctness gone mad’.

The prevalence of social media and the interactive nature of television programmes has given consumers greater opportunity to proffer their views on all that they see.

But it also means that businesses can’t afford to get it wrong and need to prepare for the possibility that their campaign may be interpreted in a way they did not intend. 

Have this year’s blockbuster, multi-million pound campaigns proven for some retailers to be a double-edged sword?

Retail Week spoke to legal and corporate affairs experts on how this year’s Christmas advert controversies were handled and what the retailers at the centre of these storms could have done differently.

John Lewis

What happened?

John Lewis’ Christmas advert has become a fixture of the festive season, with the secrecy surrounding its release such that the retailer made journalists viewing the advert sign a non-disclosure agreement.

This year, the advert’s customary cuddly twosome were a little boy, Joe, and Moz, the monster that lives under his bed. It set Twitter alight with love for the advert and grumbles that the story didn’t make sense, but all that fades into insignificance with the current claims that it plagiarised an existing storybook.

Chris Riddell, former children’s laureate and author of the storybook Mr Underbed, posted his comments on Twitter saying: “John Lewis helps themselves to my picture book.”

John Lewis has been accused of copying from children’s books before. In 2014, the retailer found itself facing criticism over its Monty the Penguin campaign, with some saying it bore resemblance to Oliver Jeffers’ bestselling children’s book, Lost and Found.

With this in mind, it’s surprising that the retailer has fallen foul of this pitfall yet again.

One corporate affairs adviser told Retail Week that the responsibility should have been shouldered by long-time John Lewis ad agency, Adam & Eve DDB.

“The company in question didn’t plagiarise it, they were pitched it,” he says. “The responsibility lies with whoever came up with the idea.”

John Lewis’ reaction

A John Lewis spokeswoman said: “The story of a big hairy monster under the bed which keeps a child from sleeping is a universal tale that has been told many times over many years.

“Ours is a Christmas story of friendship and fun between Joe and Moz the Monster, in which Joe receives a night light which helps him get a good night’s sleep. The main thrust of our story is utterly different to Chris Riddell’s.”

The right response?

John Lewis’ statement deals with the matter but these allegations could easily have been avoided by running due diligence. As one reputation management expert said: “It’s the kind of due diligence that people putting out a £7m advert should do”.


What happened?

M&S released a big budget advert featuring Paddington Bear this Christmas. In the ad, the much-loved bear mistakes a thief for Father Christmas and takes him on a marmalade-fuelled adventure with him.

However, some outraged viewers claimed that, in a parting comment, the thief swears at Paddington. They argued that the line was “f*** you, little bear,” when the villain in fact says, “thank you, little bear”.

M&S’ reaction

M&S made short shrift of the furore. A spokesman for the retailer said it was “clear” that the words are “thank you, little bear”.

However, after the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency got involved, the issue was definitively resolved.

After receiving a total of three complaints, it determined that the ad does not include a single swear word.

An ASA spokesman said: “Whilst we appreciated that some viewers may have misinterpreted this, the ad did not contain a swear word and therefore did not break the rules.”

He added: “There were no grounds for an investigation.”

The right response?

According to MHP Communications head of retail Simon Hockridge, retailers should expect greater scrutiny by the public, and therefore check everything more carefully to avoid confusion.

He says: “Given the ever-increasing spend and emphasis that they are now placing on their Christmas ads, retailers shouldn’t be surprised that their productions are facing intense scrutiny by the public.

“What’s become clear is that in some cases the potential reaction from certain audiences hasn’t been fully thought through before release, leaving some retailers caught up in a media storm which could have been avoided.

“The lesson being check, and then check again.” 


What happened?

Tesco sparked the ire of certain shoppers who threatened to boycott the grocer after it used a Muslim family in its Christmas ad.

The supermarket’s one-minute long advert features a variety of families – including one wearing hijabs – preparing Christmas dinners and cooking turkey in a number of ways.

However, some social media users threatened to boycott Tesco. One Twitter user said: “I am boycotting your store for the simple fact of your disrespectful ads against the Christian faith.”

Tesco’s reaction

Tesco responded to criticism by saying: “Everyone is welcome at Tesco this Christmas and we’re proud to celebrate the many ways our customers come together over the festive season.

“We want our customers to know that however they choose to do Christmas, and no matter what they need, we can help – Everyone’s Welcome at Tesco.”

Another wrote: “How dare you feature a Muslim family in your CHRISTMAS advert!!! They do not celebrate CHRISTIAN festival! #WillNotShopInTesco.”

The right response?

Of course, Tesco was right to embrace inclusivity and not cower to bigotry. However, the grocer was hampered by not actually catering for those customers it claimed it welcomed. Tesco was lambasted for not selling halal turkey and has led some to accuse the grocer of not putting its money where its mouth is.


What happened?

The cheese and onion bake emporium has made a name for itself with its tongue-in-cheek advertising and social media campaigns in recent years.

However, the food-to-go retailer landed itself in hot water with a photo promoting its advent calendar that recreated a nativity scene, but replaced the baby Jesus with a sausage roll.

People took to Twitter to express their outrage and called for all faiths to be treated with equal respect. The advert received widespread coverage from a variety of publications.

Greggs’ reaction

The retailer issued a statement that said: “We’re really sorry to have caused any offence, this was never our intention.”

The right response?

It’s easy to look at this advert and the subsequent apology with a cynical eye and say that Greggs was fully aware of the reaction its advert would garner.

The amused reactions to the advert far outweighed the offended ones on social media and sources ranging from The Guardian to Buzzfeed gave it positive coverage.

A reputation expert says: “Realistically, 90% of Greggs customers wouldn’t have been offended by that.

“Whether that’s calculated or not is in your view or mine, but I reckon it was. I think it was ‘what the hell do we care so long as we get in the papers’”.