While at UCD the month of December is best understood to be the time in which a vicious Battle Royale between snow and students reigns on the Belfield campus, for much of the rest of the world it is month of a seemingly never-ending influx of advertisements, all building up to a single 24-hour block of festive cheer. Originally a Christian holiday marking the birth of the saviour of mankind, December 25th now seems to celebrate a collective indulgence in a capitalistic dream world of mistletoe, holly, and Dickensian decadence.
While one doesn’t need to be Don Draper to deduce that emotional manipulation is the backbone of all successful advertisement, Christmas themed commercials are still a breed apart from standard non-seasonal fare. Ad executives spurn typical strategies, budgeting, and audience discrimination in favour of pushing the universal message of the Meaning of Christmas.
Sentimentality is the order of the day, where details like information about the product, the company selling it, an angle on why it is unique, are unimportant. The message is not of persuasion, but of guilt. No matter the festive trimmings, the essence of each advertisement seems to remain the same: if you give (our product x) to (our target audience), they will love you more and you will be a good (relation); and if you receive product x, well, you are promised nothing short of total self-actualisation and inner harmony direct to you on December 25th, if only you get that new Playstation 3… complete with two free games, terms and conditions apply.
In the UK, retailer John Lewis shelled out roughly €7.5 million on a minute and a half long commercial entitled The Journey, which had a special and much hyped airing on Channel 4 in early November, following a number of 10 second long teaser advertisements in the preceding weeks. While a scheduled network premiere of 90 seconds of a six million pound snowman-in-the-snow may seem grandiose and unnecessary, the figures don’t lie. The release of the John Lewis festive commercial coincides with the onset of an annual 11.4% jump in sales, a minimum sustained throughout the season. At £70,000 per second, the company makes an extra £84 million per day. It certainly seems worth it.
Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola Corporation asserts that “the appearance of our iconic Christmas advert marks the beginning of the festive season”, and since the company can credit themselves with the popularisation of the modern conception of Santa Claus as white bearded, rosy cheeked, and decked out in a red and white suit from as early as the 1930s; this is arguably not an entirely unfounded assumption. Though radio spots and in-store visual merchandising can, and often do, begin as early as August, the bulk of television adverts come in with Coca-Cola in the first week of November.
The New York Times reported that this increasingly early onset of Christmas themed ads, part of a phenomenon known as ‘Christmas creep’ is intended by retailers to compensate for the recession and the consequential reduction in consumer spending power. With the so-called holidays spread out over months, consumers are able to pace their purchases, stretch their budgets, and ultimately buy more.
Ireland, unfortunately, is far from exempt from this feverishly commercialised take on Christmas. The Late Late Toy Show has been the highest rated programme in Ireland every year for the past ten. In 2009, 2,247,700 total viewers tuned in to RTÉ for the live show and its single rebroadcast, while accordingly, a 30 second feature by the host or his helpers runs for a consistently cool €17,000. First come, first serve.
Defying belief, advertisers rarely come under fire for the calculated manner in which they design their commercials to manipulate viewers, for the grossly consumerist values they propagate, or even for their completely fabricated conception of what Christmas is and what it feels like, that is somehow now embedded as fact in the modern psyche. As if society is collectively in denial, political correctness trumps all of the above. The 2012 commercial for supermarket chain Asda was heavily criticised for being sexist against both women and men, portraying the men as incompetent and lazy and the women as over-worked around the home and forced to shoulder the heavy burden of organising everything.
This is no revelatory stance for advertisers to take: rarely will a man take the lead in selling a cleaning product; unless of course he is overtly idealised in order to appeal to an assumed female target demographic. However, Christmas advertisements will strike nerves where typical spots will not, because they are designed to be explicitly personal, to force the audience to emote and to connect with them, and to sell a glamorous, if fleeting, lifestyle rather than a mere household necessity. Seasonal advertising is a calculated risk and, when successful, a commercial can become a festive institution, beyond the water cooler talk material that marks sales highs for the rest of the year. (Just ask Guinness, Kelloggs, and Coca-Cola.)
Despite all evidence pointing to the fact that the advertisements of the holiday season are, ironically enough, soulless on a borderline Satanic level, as with all vices we might as well just sit back and enjoy them. Don’t get too invested though; if Tesco are making you misty-eyed via flogging Brussels sprouts and turkey, perhaps you should consider reading up on the Gaza Strip.