Advent of the Advert

Forget the coloured candles in church and the chocolate calendars at home. There’s a new kind of advent heralding the start of Christmas: the advent of the advert. From the beginning of every November, the nation now sits agog for the latest creative incentives in Christmas shopping, dying to see which store will win our wallets in the festive battle of television adverts. Who will be the dark horse of the supermarkets? Will John Lewis keep hold of their crown? Whose light, breathy tones will deliver the soundtrack? I can’t remember a time in the last decade when we’ve been so hooked on the medium of advertising.

The tide has certainly taken us in an unsuspected direction. Back in 2003, Lawrence Donegan echoed a general concensus when he foretold that the television advert simply ‘must die’ with the rise of a digital age and the fast-forward remote. But even with the increasing variety of communication platforms such as the Internet, iPhone apps and on-demand programming, the television has remained an ever powerful and relevant commercial medium. Sure, there’s a lot of rubbish out there, but the popularity of these Christmas campaigns has reaffirmed the innovative, gripping potential for quality adverts.

On the one hand, perhaps it’s a depressing indication of the holy season’s final subsumption into a culture of materialistic values and commercial interests. Instead of discussing the Gospel of St. Luke 2:1-20, we’d rather sit tweeting about Tesco’s #nostalgic, #emotional montage of Christmas home videos. In place of the traditional Nativity story, the annual John Lewis adverts now provide an alternative, 21st century Christmas tale, transfixing the attentions of critics and consumers alike. But however poignant and sophisticated these narratives may be, they always finish up with that sentimental urge to ‘go that extra mile’ for that ‘extra special person’ – or in plainer terms, dig deep into your pockets and purchase away.

What’s interesting, however, is the way in which we do actually read into these adverts like narratives. Year upon year, our hearts are won over by John Lewis’ allegories of a snowman trapsing across landscapes to buy gloves for his snow wife, or a young boy counting down the hours desperate to give rather than receive. This year’s instalment, a bear coming out of hibernation to celebrate Christmas Day with his little hare friend, has provoked even more discussion than usual. BBC News even published an article exploring ’10 interpretations’ of the advert: why are there no humans? why specifically those animals? why this style of animation? We’ve all been dissecting the subtexts, the meanings, the symbolism, applying a surprisingly insightful critique as we would to a Shakespeare play.

Indeed, for a world where we’re passively absorbing information all of the time, this festive phenomenon has suddenly encouraged us to interrogate the very nature of advertising itself. As more brands hop onto the battle terrain, the spectator is becoming savvier to the marketing ploys behind these sentimental tearjerkers and sparkly fairytales. It’s interesting the number of people who have commented on the lack of commercial products in John Lewis’ ‘Bear and the Hare’, against the more magical and lavish advert by Marks and Spencer featuring Helena Bonham Carter. We’re becoming increasingly attentive to the way in which brands try to enforce their principles and influence our judgements.

Where the true success of these Christmas adverts lie, particularly those of John Lewis, is in their ability to engage our creative and critical faculties. By questioning ‘how are they going to appeal to us this time?’, we’re becoming increasingly conscious of the media’s ability to strike our sensibilities for maximum profit. But perhaps most pleasingly and most harmlessly, the widespread interest in these commercials has brought the art of advertising firmly back on the scene.

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