There was a time when having Christmas advert banished from TV would have been a sucker punch to festive sales.

Not so this year – at least not as far as Iceland is concerned.

Its commercial is far from being the tried-and-true bauble-soaked, frothy affair. Instead, it is an arresting animation about the impact of palm oil on rainforests.

The retailer’s advert has not run on television due to breaching regulations for being too political – and that’s arguably the best thing that could have happened for it.

The YouTube video of the advert has notched up 5.4 million views at the time of writing, as well as nearly 1 million signatures on a petition to allow it to be shown on television.

As a retail journalist, I have a tendency to talk to my friends about stories from the sector that they, at best, politely feign interest in.

Therefore, my personal litmus test for ‘A Big Story’ in retail is when I hear about it from people who would never sit up and pay attention to, say, Card Factory’s latest trading update.

By that logic, this advert has been a runaway success.

Facebook and Twitter have been awash with people heralding the advert and berating the forces that be who have forbidden it for being shown on television.

Walking the walk

There’s a lesson for retailers to learn from this about how to nail a marketing campaign by ditching the traditional and going for a strong message backed up by authenticity.

In a year when the use of the word ‘single-use’ has increased fourfold since 2013 due to the impact of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, using marketing to key into shoppers’ environmental concerns is a prescient move.

Iceland’s advert does this and takes it a step further by highlighting an issue that many retailers may not have previously been aware of.

The contentious issue of palm oil, which is present in approximately 70% of food items, and its impact on the environment has not exactly been dinner party conversation fodder, to my knowledge, before this advert was unveiled.

Iceland’s efforts go beyond a viral Christmas marketing campaign, even if it has pounced on the fervour like an animatronic orangutan strolling down Oxford Street.

But it is the grocer’s commitment to the cause that stops this advert from being a vanity exercise, which canny customers would have quickly seen through and potentially sneered at or written off.

Iceland unveiled its plan to remove palm oil from its own brand products in April and has pulled 450 items containing the ingredients from its shelves, making it a business that has gone on record as having walked the walk before it talked the talk.

“Iceland’s unorthodox festive campaign has compelled shoppers that might not have gone into one of its stores to make the trip”

Those two factors combined have the potential to have a tangible positive impact on the grocer’s sales.

As Kantar’s Fraser McKevitt points out: “Nearly 37% of Iceland’s sales come from the more affluent ABC1 social group – five years ago this was less than a third.

“Its banned palm oil Christmas advert is tugging at the heartstrings of Britain’s middle classes and could translate into strong sales growth, especially if it manages to pique the interest of the half of the population who haven’t shopped there in the past year. Sales are already up by 5.0% this period and while frozen food is still increasing, 94% of this growth actually comes from its fresh, chilled and ambient food aisles.”

Iceland’s unorthodox festive campaign goes beyond the success of grabbed column inches and the attention of armchair activists.

It has compelled shoppers that might not have gone into one of its stores otherwise to make the trip – which is an enviable position for any retailer to be in, particularly during the festive season.