The 2013 Infuriating Christmas Advert Awards

(this is the heavily edited version)

In the true spirit of capitalism, I though I’d encourage competition, by not only informing you of the ways in which I find three Christmas adverts infuriating, but by ranking them as well, showing once and for all what I consider to be the daftest collection of snow-tinted pictures and bell-jingling sounds on TV right now.

I hinted at these adverts almost a month ago now, back on the first of December, in this broader post about the flaws with advertising Christmas in general so early in the year, so you can look up the finalists now if you really want to. For the rest of us, without further ado, I present my top three infuriating Christmas adverts.

Third Place – John Lewis

The Bear and the Hare win the bronze bauble, largely because a part of me can’t get over the cuteness of it all; for all of my soon-to-be-explained qualms with the advert, a part of me falls in love with the sweet and cartoonish visual style, and underlying message that Christmas is a time for getting everyone together, even those who would usually be excluded from family celebrations.

The story-telling is simple and easy to follow, the music is honestly excellently fitting, and is a much more relaxed entry than the other two medallists, meaning that it suits my type of Christmas: a time of downloading Icon For Hire albums off iTunes on Christmas morning, hanging out with my grandparents and staying up late watching A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart – it’s fun and chilled.

However, the ‘underlying message’ I mentioned earlier unsettles me slightly: the commercialisation of Christmas means that people beyond Christians celebrate the holiday. This has become commonplace, and I’m not suggesting that each religion shouldn’t listen to and learn from each other’s teachings, because the communal and charitable sides of Christmas cannot be ignored, but it does concern me that people who may even doubt the existence of Jesus, let alone his deistic powers, are singing his praises.

Perhaps the idea of including the Bear into the Hare’s highly consumerised idea of Christmas (the animals probably bought those baubles from IKEA for God’s sake) reflects the admission of non-Christians into the more material side of the holiday: ‘Who cares if your bodily functions or faith prevent you from celebrating today, just come and look at these fancy lights!’ The advert seems to skew the ‘meaning’ of Christmas in this respect.

Furthermore, the film blurs the lines between the natural and the artifice (a term I picked up reading the essays of my Cambridge interviewers): suddenly, it’s no longer natural to let a bear sleep through Christmas as it should, but it’s natural to wake it up and show it a tree laden with fire.

There’s also the elephant in the room of the baubles and tinsel on the tree; while the advert uses animals and nature to suggest Christmas is an inherently natural celebration, the Bear can only be involved through the active use of the man-made alarm clock (the Hare could easily wake the Bear up when it visited him to drop off the alarm clock) and the Bear is only attracted to the tree and the feelings of togetherness and warmth because it’s covered in lights; earlier in the film, we saw the Bear dismiss that same, undecorated and therefore natural, tree and bugger off home because it was boring, made the Bear yawn, and leave.

The advert doesn’t end on this note of naturality, however, closing with the imperative ‘Give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget’, meaning that this divide between nature and reality isn’t clear: when most people see it for the first time, as was the case with me, this contradiction is not noticed, as they see cute fuzzy animals, and the climax emphasises the age-old line of making Christmas memorable. Well played, John Lewis.

However, I still like this advert; I don’t hate it to the extent that I can say I enjoy watching it as it’s genuinely adorable and relaxing, and it’s criticisms can only really be drawn out by multiple watchings and some pretty close thematic analysis, which, admittedly, most people do not do when watching a Christmas advert.

Second Place – Tesco

The silver tinsel of silliness goes to Tesco’s valiant effort for this year’s prize, who backed the ‘Let’s make it so cringeworthy people will hate it unconditionally’ horse, which is always a solid bet.

Despite their best efforts, the video turned out alright in places, with the best bit being the universality and relate-ability of the piece: no sleepy bears here, it’s all about real people, with their real problems in their real lives. Although I liked the coziness of the John Lewis advert, the Tesco film shows real Christmas events I’m familiar with: the arguing over cooking methods (although my experiences don’t conform to gender stereotypes so rigidly), the mopey teenager and the parents trying to restrain their children have all happened in the last few years of my life, so kudos to Tesco for that.

There is a much deeper problem here than in the John Lewis advert, however; while the latter dealt with abstract ideas of nature and the artificial, the Tesco film is simply incorrect: a Christmas cannot be presented as familiar and down-to-Earth whilst being simultaneously idyllic.

I liked the problems and disputes the film showed, but those would never be resolved in the way the film suggests they would: if two adults were arguing over how to cook stuff, they probably wouldn’t come to a compromise and make up later; I’m sure they’d instead each prepare everything in the way they felt was correct, forcing everyone to eat twice as much as they otherwise would and rate each meal in events that may closely resemble the tension and food-critiquing of a Masterchef final, in a tragic display of personal rivalry, on a day designed to commemorate the birth of the saviour of man.

Ultimately, real life isn’t idyllic, so going for the ‘realistic’ approach means Christmas cannot be presented as such; although they gave it a go with the danceophobic teenager, the communally cohesive ending undermined all of these potential reality checks.

And there are further errors that make the whole film hard to believe: no family outside of The Sims stays together in one house for more than a generation, Christmas football matches are always violent, competitive affairs that are only ever tried once and descend into family legend for their idiocy, and teenagers not only do not dance, but rarely get anywhere near the other people celebrating Christmas – that kid would totally have been up in his room listening to Iron Maiden if this was realistic.

Although potentially welcoming and family-oriented (goals undermined by the general creepiness of the actors and editing, resulting in each scene lingering a fraction of a second too long), the Tesco advert is more obviously fundamentally flawed than the John Lewis film, and has more inconsistencies. Good effort.

First Place – M&S

This year’s gold star of grief goes to this frankly outstanding piece from Marks & Spencer, which blows the comfort of the John Lewis advert and the homeliness of the Tesco film out of the water, with a series of glittering bits of tomfoolery and product placement, all wrapped up in the tortured metaphor of a nightmarish fairy tale. Truly this is a victory for the record books.

Whizzing through this faster than my lunch up my throat after seeing this for the first time, the first fairy tale scene, that of Alice In Wonderland, includes a table garnished with food begging you to ‘eat me’ and a handbag commanding you to ‘love me’; if we start from the point that love is one of, if not, the most powerful and natural feelings a human can experience, are we to believe that this most powerful of responses is one reserved not for food, which we must consume to live, but for pointless accessories that we could easily live without? Essentially, human expressions and supposedly aimed at that which we want, not that which we need, which is a sorrily accurate reflection of our species.

The role of men in this film also annoys me; some people will bang on forever about how women get the shaft in all forms of art and employment, but no-one’s flipping it the other way and complaining about the fact that the one man in this film is just there to look pretty. He is even portrayed as the Scarecrow, the traveller with no brain, suggesting that men are mindless muppets in the world of the M&S advert.

Also, the use of the same man throughout the film suggests that men have no individuality in this world; in the Alice In Wonderland scene alone, there are three women at the table who are focused on, and while two express opinions (shock at the protagonist’s apparent theft of the handbag) and the third shows action (lobbing cards at the protagonists to stop her escaping), the man, once again, sits there and looks pretty.

I know the advert is aimed at women, and I don’t really see an inherent problem with that, but awkwardness arises when those outside of the target demographic are actively undermined; ‘male’ adverts for cars are not particularly sexist, but ‘male’ advert for cars in which young, naked women are draped over those cars are, and it’s the same story with men in the M&S advert.

What’s arguably worse, however, is the fact that the ‘dominant’ gender, women, are also shown to have very little self-control or power; our beloved protagonist’s first action is to drool over and steal a bag, she loses her dog before the film even starts and when she first falls down the man-hole (woo-hoo, urbanisation!), she is surrounded by expensive underpants and homewear. The vibe I’m getting from this film is that women are the domesticated, superficial fools they’re sadly always presented as, but now we get the added bonus of men being nothing more than six-packed and smiling vegetables.

Another key issue is the prioritisation of materialism; while all humans are relegated to the ranks of the image-obsessed, trinkets and accessories are shown to be of paramount importance. The protagonist’s theft of the handbag is the only thing to provoke a reaction from the party guests, a group of people who were fine with a random woman dropping in from the heavens – ‘Who her? No idea, but she’s fine as long as she doesn’t touch our material possessions!’

Similarly, the floating-Wizard-head-played-by-Helena-Bonham-Carter thing, perhaps the only source of power and reason in the piece, as it is her that finally finds the dog and finishes the damn plot, is reduced to complimenting the protagonist on her shoes, an action I showed to be flawed in the other post by reminding us all of the fact that floating heads can’t wear shoes.

Perhaps the film’s greatest flaw from an advertising perspective is its division from reality; while the Tesco advert explicitly showed how a ‘typical’ family Christmas operates, and the John Lewis film at least hinted at feelings of togetherness and unity, there is no relation to reality, nor a ‘moral’ message in the M&S film.

I don’t think of skipping through childhood stories in heels when I think of Christmas, nor do I think of attractive man-carrots danged in front of me on a flying carpet (maybe I’ve just not met the right man-carrot?); the content of the film is so weird and unChristmassy that I think I’d struggle to call this a Christmas advert if it wasn’t in the title; it’s vaguely wintery, with a sprinkle of snow here and there, but that’s about it.

And what the Hell is the message of the piece? The protagonist simply runs through fairy tales being bombarded with subtle sexism and unsubtle ‘buy our crap’ messages in the form of cannon-propelled underwear. Just read the damn video description; it promises you’ll ‘sparkle from head to toe with decadent lingerie, glamorous make-up and glittering accessories’, a far cry form the John Lewis synopsis of Hare ‘and his best friend Bear’. At least tell us about your dresses or shirts or something; don’t just sell us the accessories and underpants for God’s sake, we need more clothes than that!

The first two films showed some degree of care for the ‘Christmas spirit’, even if it is just to sell us stuff, which I’m fine with; I’ve seen seventeen years of these God-forsaken adverts, so I accept some superficial nod to feelings of togetherness is necessary to sell socks. But M&S don’t seem to agree; they’re shoving consumerism and commands to ‘believe in magic and sparkle’ down our throats, without even the decency to make a passing reference to Jesus, or any other seemingly inconsequential figure.

Why don’t they just advertise this as the ‘Boxing Day sales advert’, because it has as much to do with Christmas as spelling your name in the snow with piss; while the John Lewis advert was cute, and the Tesco one was homely in scope but poor in execution, the M&S entry is the sort of thing you’d expect Ebenezer Scrooge to show to Tiny Tim for his own sadistic amusement, and for that, it is the clear winner of the 2013 Infuriating Christmas Advert Award.

Links:

My Previous Post

John Lewis Advert

Tesco Advert

Our Glorious Victor

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