Festive ad season is here again, but with budgets tighter than ever has this year’s campaign money been well spent? Charlotte Hardie finds out

They’re big, they’re bold and they’re extremely expensive. Barely an ad break goes by at this time of the year without one of the major retailers’ festive commercial offerings gracing our screens. But with vast quantities of cash being poured into their production at a time when budgets are having the life squeezed out of them, was it money well spent?

This year, some have taken a completely fresh approach, while others are a continuation of previous year’s campaigns. But what’s particularly interesting is the number of online views their creative endeavours are notching up.

Judging a Christmas ad campaign by the number of views online may not give an accurate reflection on whether these campaigns will drive footfall, but Saatchi & Saatchi director of strategy Richard Huntington says it’s a good indicator of their widespread public appeal. “If you were to look at a video viral chart, you won’t find anything from the British retailers. These Christmas ads should be an extraordinary advertising event and they’re not even in the running.”

Attention grabbers

At the last count, the retailer with the highest number of views is John Lewis. The department store’s beautiful offering, accompanied by Ellie Goulding’s version of Your Song, tugs on the heartstrings of every middle class female in the country. It’s one of the stand-out ads of this year and has received more than 240,000 views online. Most of the others are nowhere near that. Marks & Spencer’s ad with Peter Kay has just under 70,000 views, Sainsbury’s has just under 14,000, and the most that any of Boots’ three shorter ads has received so far this year is under 4,000.

While there are no disasters in Huntington’s eyes, he adds that there is a broad spectrum of creative execution. “You can tell those brands that have ambition and a proper understanding of their customers,” he says. Among those he praises is Sainsbury’s. Its ad shows a picturesque Yorkshire village being decked out with fake snow to the sound of a male voice choir as Sainsbury’s creates the perfect Christmas.

The grocer’s ad promotes a competition, whereby viewers can enter their own street online. The street with the most support wins their own perfect Christmas, delivered to them by the grocer. When it comes to creative advertising, Huntington says: “Brands need to care about things that people care about, they need to do something interesting and they need to let people join in. This is an attempt to do all three.”

At the other end of the scale, though, Huntington says there is a sense that some of the retailers are “going through the motions”. Ultimately, he adds: “Retailers’ Christmas advertising is not the most creative endeavour you’re ever going to see on TV. They need to promise the ideal Christmas, and there isn’t really a lot of latitude for messing around with people’s dreams of one.”

A two-minute festive ad won’t make or break a retailer’s Christmas, but it can encourage people to spend money in their stores. Either way you can be assured that while millions of eyes are glued to the TV, retailers will be glued to one thing only; their sales figures.

1 I Marks & Spencer

The premise

‘Don’t put a foot wrong this Christmas’ is the mantra for this dance-themed ad. Comedian Peter Kay joins the M&S regulars as they bust some moves to the Bee Gees’ You should be dancing.

Richard’s verdict

“This is significantly better than last year, which was no fun whatsoever. This makes M&S a little less po-faced, a bit more Strictly, a bit more X Factor, a bit more fun. This year it’s more in tune with the times and the strategy is bang on: ‘Don’t trade down, don’t make a mistake and think you can get this elsewhere’. There’s not much product, though. That might be deliberate and it might be a sign that it is more confident. Or maybe it’s just a big feel-good ad from M&S?”

2 I Sainsbury’s

The premise

A village is transformed into a festive winter wonderland, complete with Jamie Oliver, to the surprise of local residents. It promotes a nationwide competition whereby streets and villages can win their very own perfect Christmas.

Richard’s verdict

“It’s really brave, interesting and in keeping with our times. We can’t just buy our way into people’s lives the way we used to. Everyone else is saying: ‘You’ll have a perfect Christmas if you shop with us’. Sainsbury’s is saying: ‘We’ll give you the perfect Christmas’. Are streets all over the country signing up for this or will they struggle to find anyone? Who knows? But it’s different and it’s getting people to take part in the life of brands.”

3 I Tesco

The premise

The Tesco family finds all the Christmas presents demanded by the sister - Amanda Holden’s nouveau-riche character Penelope Belcher - at great prices in a Tesco store.

Richard’s verdict

“Tesco is Britain’s biggest retailer, and this is the best it can do? It’s very modest. Maybe that’s intentional - it’s all about a no-frills Tesco - ‘You can get all the stuff you can get from posh places in our place and we’ll be cheaper’. But it doesn’t seem to have a lot of stature. It’s not: ‘Here’s the Tesco ad for Christmas this year’. It goes by unnoticed. Christmas ads should be a talking point among your colleagues, and if you worked for Tesco I don’t know what you’d get out of it.”

4 I Iceland

The premise

Jason Donovan - complete with suspenders - dances around to a Moulin Rouge themed stage promoting Iceland’s festive fayre.

Richard’s verdict

“This is Iceland on steroids. Just as John Lewis knows its audience intimately, so does Iceland. It’s fun and would make people go to a store and buy the product, and also make people feel good about going there. The problem with Iceland is that the retail experience is cold and uninviting - this warms it up. A new agency has taken over this year, but all the essential furniture is still there - Jason Donovan, bright colours and a table full of mini things to eat. There’s a bit more ambition.”

5 I Boots

The premise

The ‘Here Comes the Girls’ campaign continues, but in a different guise. It comprises three comic sketches that home in on women’s feelings at Christmas.

Richard’s verdict

“They’re funny, quirky ads, but the format is different and you don’t have the big bang that the original ‘Here Come the Girls’ ad had, and it doesn’t feel very Christmassy. This year

it’s modest ambition. Many of the retailers’ Christmas campaigns are established, but this feels like it’s running out of steam. There are really good insights into how women think though - and the call centre ad in particular is beautifully written and it uses great actors.”

6 I The Range

The premise

Santa’s chief elf, played by Ricky Tomlinson, is panicked by an excessively long list of presents that he has to put in Santa’s sack.

Richard’s verdict

“The ad makes a lot of the 65,000 lines it has in stock, as well as prices. If you’re worried about Christmas, it positions it as a genuine source of help without being miserable or patronising. People are thinking: ‘I need every piece of help I can get and it looks like it has got everything and it’s cheap’. It gives people a sense of: ‘I can pull this off’. The use of celebrity here helps attribution - it becomes that Ricky Tomlinson ad. He’s reassuring and it means you trust The Range. The ad works on a very basic level.”

7 I Matalan

The premise

In Matalan’s first TV ad campaign for four years, products are taken out of a magical gift box in a snowy square and handed out.

Richard’s verdict

“I don’t know what’s going on, the box device is really weird. They fancied a bit of John Lewis action on the song. You can almost see the agency thinking: ‘We should do something like that’ - go and target posh people. It’s a mess. What’s all that about the bloke who puts on the coat and lots of black birds fly out? It presents quite a cool, contemporary image of Matalan, but it feels slightly bonkers. It’s also a bit patronising - the line: ‘Who says this can’t be the best Christmas ever?’, it’s a strange thing to say.

8 I Littlewoods

The premise

With the tagline ‘Discover the perfect gift’, Coleen Rooney and friends enter an enchanted house and as the clock strikes midnight, everyone searches the house for gifts. It ends with all presents placed under the Christmas tree and the scene dissolves into a snow globe.

Richard’s verdict

“It’s all a bit ‘Christmas paint by numbers’. It’s got a bit of celebrity, a bit of product, it’s quite festive and Christmassy and it’s all in a big house. But it says nothing. It has even made a behind-the-scenes video that only 4,000 people have thought it was worth spending

4 minutes and 8 seconds of their lives watching. Its online views aren’t bad, but this advert just doesn’t really try very hard and it feels like it’s going through the motions.”

9 I Waitrose

The premise

Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith teach the nation how to make the perfect festive dishes in its ‘Recipe for great food’ campaign.

Richard’s verdict

Delia is god when it comes to Christmas, and this works. There are no emotions, it’s pure practicality. This is saying: ‘People who think they’re a bit tasty in the food department shop in Waitrose’. I love them for it because it’s very easy for Waitrose just to be seen as a poncey shop. In creative terms it’s nothing to write home about - it’s Delia banging on about a cake - but it’s moved on from the tear-jerking ‘I’m coming home from the Christmas’ campaign and positions them as authorities in food.

10 I John Lewis

The premise

This year it’s all about the joy of giving, and focuses on people who care about showing they care and shows them trying to wrap gifts and hide them from friends and family.

Richard’s verdict

It’s very good. It’s a phenomenon and by far the most popular ad by a retailer this Christmas, building on the success of ‘Always a woman’ earlier this year. It’s like it has gone: ‘We’ll have another one of those but a Christmassy one’, but it works. John Lewis knows its audience and those ads make grown women cry. The previous agency had refined a lot of the visual language for John Lewis - restrained, almost melancholic, but in the last two years the new agency - Adam and Eve - have added a real popular appeal.