Not Buying It

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As the Yuletide approaches, Julia O’Reilly looks at the emotional Christmas ad phenomenon and questions why they work.


ACCORDING to the TV, it’s that time of year again.

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Christmas ads are, for many, a modern day toll announcing the start of the Christmas season. The seasonal offerings from the likes of John Lewis, Coca-Cola and Tesco serve as alarm bells, reminding us all to get shopping.

Each year Christmas appears earlier than the previous one. It appears, not begins. It’s all or nothing. One day shops have fake cobwebs and pumpkins in their windows and the next thing you know, it’s as if you’re an extra in The Grinch.

It was recently found that Irish people spent almost €1,000 on Christmas in 2013 – twice that of what those in the US spent. John Lewis’ ‘Man on the Moon’ ad last year cost £1 million to make and thus helped to increase online sales by 5.1% compared to the year before.

A successful ad campaign sets companies apart, so it’s understandable that companies compete to get a piece of this. UK companies spent a record £5.6 billion on advertising this year. This figure is higher than ever before.

In a world where products are bought online for the lowest cost and maximum convenience, these festive ads enable brands to portray the image they want to be associated with. Instead of barking about who sells the cheapest veg, shops are drawing in costumers in a new way; by making an emotional connection.

“It seems our heart-strings are there for nothing more than to be festively plucked by supermarkets who are competitively vying to get the most tears per view.”

The new game is essentially to see which companies’ ad can draw the biggest emotional response out of the largest group for the ultimate profit gain. And these ads grew legs; rising from the confines of the TV, they are now largely watched online. Sharing a Christmas ad on Facebook is the 2016 equivalent of sending a Christmas card. They also rack up serious views on YouTube and are discussed in articles that promise if you watch this ad you will “sob for days”. Sounds threatening.

Emotional advertising is in its stride at this time of year. John Lewis set a saccharine template in 2011, which others now follow like a creed. Cue the snow, gentle soundtrack, chirpy family and, more often than not – cute animals. It seems our heart-strings are there for nothing more than to be festively plucked by supermarkets who are competitively vying to get the most tears per view.

So what is this manipulative trend of tapping into our emotions based on? Perhaps it stems from our discomfort with the Christmas we have. Christmas has been reinvented, recycled but not repackaged. Christmas is, and should be, a time when family and friends come together. We share food and stories and often wear ridiculous jumpers, but that is a very small part of it nowadays, a mere few hours in what amounts to months of careful planning and rigorous spending. The balance has shifted somewhat.

And so it is nice to be reminded of what’s really important about that time of year. But is there not something slightly off about the fact that the people who feel the need to offer reminders of the true meaning of Christmastime are the same ones who turned it into the consumerist bonanza we know?

It’s warped that those who exist merely to sell us things are pretending to focus on family during what is the most aggressive period of spending on the calendar.

The average person probably spends more time in Tesco, Marks and Spencer’s, Lidl etc. in the run-up to Christmas than they do with the actual people these shops are reminding us we should be spending time with. It’s an uncomfortable ruse. The part that leaves a sour taste is the mountain of morals we are being served.

“The very people who feel the need to pose reminders of the true meaning of Christmastime are the same ones who turned it into a consumerist bonanza.”

In a society of rapidly declining religious belief, Christmas is all about consumption; feasting on food, buying gift after gift and watching every Christmas movie ever made.  There really isn’t anything wrong with that. We should all just admit that we like things; we like buying them, we like giving them to others and we really like receiving them. Christmas is a huge celebration of this so we should drop the pretences. It’s not shameful, it’s who we are now.

What was wrong with ads of Christmases past, where furniture ads would straight-up proclaim that you need a new couch for Christmas? There is no hidden agenda, there is no skirting around the idea that they are a company that runs on profit. It’s a blatant pitch. What we’ve been left with is a gross emotional manipulation.

The fact of the matter is that these ads are all very touching when blatant consumerism is disregarded, but the crucial point is that they are ads. Remembering that they exist for the sole purpose of directing people into a shop casts a cloud over the sweet sentiments they possess.

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