You can tell a lot about a culture from its ads.
Have you ever looked through an old newspaper? The headlines may tell you what was going on in the world, but the ads tell you what was happening in people’s hearts. People’s deeper concerns. Their fears, and their desires.
The suited, neatly-combed businessman depicted in virtually every ad of the 1950s reflected a yearning for order and conformity in a changing world. Meanwhile, the blatant frothing over new consumer goods showed a wish to demonstrate the household’s rising economic status, as global affluence increased.
Looking back at the ads of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, their concerns are obvious to us. But what if we turn the lens onto ourselves? Without the perspective provided by distance, it is harder to form an accurate picture.
We see more clearly if we restrict our focus, for example to a single category. The annual crop of Christmas ads is a fertile field to plough. First of all, Christmas ads are not trying to sell a product. Or at least, any products which may feature are just a pretext on which to hang a deeper message. Instead, Christmas ads are trying to make us feel something. (If only brands did this all year round!) They are trying to resonate, and for that reason, they give us an excellent window into the values and concerns of our culture.
The four areas that Christmas ads suggest are concerns for our society are fear of isolation, a desire for freedom, a desire for meaningfulness, and – although this idea might on the face of it seem incongruous within the festive context of Christmas – our fear of death.
Let’s start with the issue of isolation, since the most common and easily observable feature of Christmas ads is their focus on togetherness. Christmas is portrayed as a time when families come together and loneliness is vanquished. The festive season has always been a time when we feel a heightened sympathy for those who find themselves alone, since it is considered to be especially depressing to be ‘on your own at Christmas.’ But the theme draws particular resonance when you consider that social isolation is a major issue in our society in general, not just at Christmas. We are increasingly living alone, or at least in smaller units. In Canada, for example, average household size has plunged from 12.5 persons per household (in 1851) to 2.5 today. Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone charted the massive reduction in social contact experienced by the typical American.
Christmas ads that address the issue of isolation do so in a uniform way, by first raising the issue, and then resolving it. Examples of ‘isolation resolved’ Christmas spots include John Lewis’s 2015 ‘Man on the Moon’ ad and this year’s Australia Post commercial.
But the theme can also take more subtle forms, around issues not just of loneliness but acceptance.
Take this year’s John Lewis ad, set to a ballad version of REO Speedwagon's soft-rock classic Can't Fight This Feeling and featuring Edgar, an excitable dragon. The commercial can be read as a fantasy that resolves the fear of isolation felt by many workers today. Edgar’s fire-breathing skills seem unsuited to the world in which he now finds himself. Like a sheet metal worker entering the information age, his skills are too brute and unsubtle. However, he is able to redeploy his fire-creation ability to setting the Christmas pudding alight, which causes him great delight. He is not redundant after all. And after his successful ‘re-training’, he is accepted by the community.
Although superficially they look totally different – one is set in a fantasy medieval England, the other a modern America – there is a strong parallel between this commercial and Apple’s highly-regarded 2013 Christmas effort, ‘Misunderstood’, in which a teenager is seemingly too preoccupied with his iPhone to engage with his family gathered for the holiday, but is later revealed to have been working on a movie about the event. But both spots deal with isolation. In the case of the Apple ad, it addresses the fear that the encroachment of modern technology will separate us from each other. The genius of this ad is that it turns the argument on its head, demonstrating that technology can be a tool for connection not detachment.
It’s interesting to note that in both these ads, the outcast is only accepted by their community once they have demonstrated a skill. In today’s culture, it seems, acceptance cannot be granted unconditionally.
Another example is Polish e-commerce site Allegro’s 2016 viral effort ‘English for Beginners’, in which an old man whose only companion is a dog learns English in order to visit his grandson in the UK.
Another societal concern that shows up in Christmas ads is our desire for freedom.
Our lives used to be highly structured. Most men and women conformed to strict gender roles, and individuals typically remained in the same profession for a lifetime. Our social roles were equally rigid, determined by strict class hierarchies. Today, we can quite easily change jobs. Gender roles are more fluid. We don’t ‘have’ to get married and we don’t ‘have’ to have children. But our lives are still heavily constrained by family and employer obligations.
Many Christmas ads find power in portraying Christmas as a time of greater licence than our regular daily existence. What better expression of the sheer joy of freedom has been captured in recent years than the trampolining of Buster the Boxer in John Lewis’s 2016 Christmas ad? The Gap’s famous Michel Gondry-directed holiday ads were similarly bursting with freedom.
A third concern addressed by Christmas ads is our desire for meaning. The decline of traditional sources of meaningfulness such as religion and nationalism has left many of us searching for meaning in our lives. In a Christmas context, this theme often seems to be expressed as the search for a meaningful gift.
The 2018 ‘Boy And The Piano’ John Lewis ad is a good example. The commercial shows his family giving young Elton John a piano, which changes his life in ways we all know. The story is about the power of a Christmas gift to bring meaning to a person’s life. And The 2008 John Lewis Christmas ad shows a sequence of people who each receive a gift that is particularly meaningful to them. For example, a dog with long fur is given a hairdryer.
The fourth and final concern that Christmas ads seem to address is our fear of death. Arguably, our culture’s annual celebration of Christmas itself plays into the false (but comforting) notion that life is cyclical, rather than a linear journey.
Death is a subject that is far too heavy for most brands to address. But the 2013 John Lewis Christmas ad, ‘The Bear & the Hare’, seems to do so, albeit covertly. This film tells the story of a hare who – feeling sorry for his friend, a bear who always misses Christmas since he has to hibernate – decides to gift him an alarm clock. The bear, who all the animals had thought was lost to them, awakens, returns, and is able to participate in the merriment of Christmas. One reading of the ad is that the hare is resurrecting his friend. Death is often referred to as ‘the long sleep’, and in showing us that the bear’s hibernation can be brought to an end by a thoughtful Christmas gift, the ad may be expressing our desire to triumph over death.
It’s impossible to say whether the makers of the commercial consciously set out to address man’s fear of death. But we can certainly say that, at each stage of the commercial’s production, the power of the idea was recognised. The creative team that came up with it, the creative director that approved it, the client who bought into it, the directors who agreed to take it on… all must have felt it resonated strongly, perhaps without even knowing why. And it certainly resonated with the public.
As has Aldi Australia’s Christmas ad this year, ‘The Miracle Ham’, in which – in a ‘Christmas miracle’ – a ham attains eternal life. It doesn’t matter how many times you cut it, the ham always regenerates.
Sainsbury’s ‘1914’ ad told the story of how the Christmas truce was a respite from the slaughter of the Western Front. It literally put death on hold.
Macy’s 2016 ‘Old Friends’ ad explicitly addresses death. A Santa blimp in the Thanksgiving Day parade sees a boy in the crowd, and winks at him. Thus begins a tradition: the boy becomes a man, and finally an old man, and Santa looks forward to seeing him at the parade every year. When eventually the old man is no longer there, the implication is clear – he has died. The Santa blimp leaves the parade and flies across the US, eventually tracking down his old friend at home, for a poignant reunion. The anxiety caused by the thought of death has been defused.
And German supermarket brand Edeka went viral in 2015 with ‘Coming Home’, the tale of an elderly man who is unable to get his family to visit him for the festive period. When they all receive word that he has died, the family gathers at his home for the funeral… only for the gentleman himself to appear, very much alive, and having prepared a Christmas meal for them all, thus showing that the spirit of Christmas togetherness can trump even death.
It may be that none of the individuals involved in the creation of these fantastic commercials could explain why they have resonated so strongly. And they may scoff at the suggestion they were addressing our society’s existential anxieties. Nevertheless, the power of these ads undeniably stems from somewhere, and it may well be from their ability to address our culture’s fear of isolation, desire for freedom, yearning for meaning, and fear of death.
And if a Christmas ad evokes such powerful emotions that, for 60 seconds at least, it can help us put aside such deep-seated concerns, then that’s a hugely impressive achievement.