December 24, 2021

The Magic of Christmas, as told by iconic advertisements, images, and messaging

Whilst Christmas is a time for maintaining the well-loved traditions of celebration and giving, it is also a time when marketing and advertising snowballs with festive imagery, storytelling, and music.  

However not all campaigns follow the path most of us are familiar with. For example, in Japan, over the Christmas season an estimated 3.6 million people make reservations weeks in advance at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), making Christmas Eve the busiest time of year for the chain nationwide. 

© TWPhoto/Corbis

This spike in popularity is largely owed to a 1974 marketing campaign called “Kentucky for Christmas.” This campaign turned an advertising triumph into a real Christmas tradition for millions of people—something that will stand the test of time, even if the marketing strategy changes, evolves, or even stops.

In recent years, the power of nostalgia and storytelling has been utilised by Google, by their homage to Home Alone—a cult favourite Christmas movie for all ages. Bringing in the lead actor Macaulay Culkin, referencing key scenes in the movie, and using the same home from the film (while frequently slipping in the use of Google Home), presents a perfect example of Christmas marketing that is both enjoyable for the consumer and effective for the business.

Coca-Cola claims they contributed to the image of Santa Claus we know today. Is the rumour true that Santa’s attire is red because of the colour of Coca-Cola? No— they themselves set the record straight via an FAQ on their website, noting that they were aware of the history of St. Nick and his “scarlet coat”. 

Campaign from 1931 featured in The Saturday Evening Post.

But they added that it is true how among the many illustrations and portrayals of Santa through folklore and beyond, their advertising from the 1930s onward played a “big role in shaping the big, jolly Santa character we know and love today”. 

Although they may have only made this figure more popular and visible, it may be true that they contributed to the modern persona of Santa Claus. To this day, Coca-Cola’s Christmas marketing features Santa prominently, and every year they succeed in garnering strong media influence as a result of having adverts which are consistent, but creatively refreshed every year. Crucially, it’s almost impossible not to associate the (very catchy) “Holidays are Comin’” song with the adverts and in turn, the product.

One of the most talked about adverts across all social media platforms is the annual John Lewis Christmas advert, and it shows—the holiday period supplies 20% of their annual sales, and 40% of their annual profit.

John Lewis' 2019 Christmas advert featuring Excitable Edgar (Image: PA).

Influenced by how consumers all around the world have had their world shaken by the pandemic, this year’s advert is said to be focused on how “Christmas is not just about gifting. There are many moments that make up Christmas, from decorating the tree to hosting family and friends,” said Claire Pointon, Customer Director at John Lewis.

As retail was hard hit by the pandemic, it has been recognised that this Christmas period is a crucial sales opportunity. In the UK, 2020 saw total retail sales volumes fall by 1.9% compared with 2019, the largest annual fall on record. Therefore the “joyful escapism” of the emotional, narrativised advertisements John Lewis create are increasingly anticipated by consumers.

Guinness has an iconic Christmas advert that has run every year in Ireland since 2004, and while it has some of the attributes of classic Guinness advertising, it is still noticeably different. 

Immediately viewers can surmise that it is Guinness-related simply from the visuals, including the black and white style and the Guinness sign on the wall of the pub, without ever showing a pint or a can of the drink. The clips of all 4 provinces of the island show “subliminal hints of a pint in a beautiful and integrated way, rather than just showing the product or logo.” 

And finally, a campaign particularly relevant to today’s increasing awareness of the complexities of the current climate crisis is Iceland’s 2018 advertisement, “Choose a Christmas Without Palm Oil”

Iceland/Press Association Images.

While banned from television for being too political, it went viral on social media for raising awareness surrounding the harmful use of palm oil. The advert was narrated by renowned actress Emma Thompson, and features an orangutan trying to befriend a child in her home because his home was destroyed to make palm oil. The production of palm oil, an ingredient in many household products and foods like soaps, biscuits, pizzas, and more, “is said to have been responsible for about 8% of the world's deforestation between 1990 and 2008.”

And, its journey didn’t end there—an online petition to put the advert back on television was signed by 750,000 people. Despite this, Clearcast, the body which approves adverts for UK TV, said it wasn't approved because it breached political advertising rules since it was originally made by the environmental organisation Greenpeace. Still, its traction continued to build. A life-size animatronic orangutan was created to appear in London’s busiest areas portraying the orangutan in everyday scenarios to reflect that it is too a living being and just like us, needs a home. 

The common thread in the themes of Christmas advertising are consistent year upon year—those of home, giving, and appreciation for what we have and the people around us. 

These are just a few examples of marketing strategies which have managed to cleverly keep these themes intact in their creations while still being captivating, creative, and memorable.

Grace Farrell
Content Creator & Copywriter