A Christmas Like No Other: How Will Brands Advertise During COVID?

November 16, 2020

Nothing marks the beginning of the holiday season in the UK quite like the premier of the John Lewis Christmas TV advert. 

Holiday advertising during the run-up to Christmas is as big a deal in the U.K. as Super Bowl advertising is in the U.S. And there’s been extra anticipation this year due to the pandemic.

At a time of such stress and uncertainty, how will brands manage to deliver the expected dose of Christmas cheer? Will they face COVID head-on in their ads? Or will they pretend like the virus doesn’t exist?

John Lewis & Partners decided to focus on the theme of kindness in this year’s advert, titled “Give a Little Love.” 

The clip begins with a boy who loses his football in a tree. A girl helps him by knocking it out with her umbrella, which is shaped like a heart. This symbol of a heart continues to reappear throughout the ad as we observe one act of kindness after another.

Significantly, we watch this series of generous acts unfold in a variety of moving art forms — from traditional cinematography to several different styles of animation. In fact, eight different artists were hired to collaborate on the ad, a way for John Lewis & Partners to help those in the creative industry, which has been hit especially hard during the pandemic. Likewise, the singer Celeste was commissioned to create an original song for the ad, and ten pence from every download of the song will be donated to charity. 

Let’s take a look at a few of the other adverts that already debuted before the John Lewis ad to get a sense of how Christmas advertising during COVID will be dramatically different to years past. 

“Christmas Is this Very Moment”

British online retailer Very has decided to celebrate the season by poking a little fun at the cliches of Christmas past. 

This year’s ad opens with a smiling family gathered around a candlelit table heaving with dishes while a gorgeous Christmas tree twinkles in the background — only to be interrupted by a “real” family lounging in their living room, scoffing at “the load of rubbish” they’ve just seen on the screen.  

The ad goes on to celebrate how chaotic and messy Christmas can be as the narrator describes the “real-life” holiday moments that delight her. No, there is no direct acknowledgement that Christmas will be different this year. What we get instead is a nod to how the cliches that worked to warm our hearts in the past are not likely to win us over in a year as strange and difficult as this one.

“An Evening with AbracaDaisy and the Incredible Lucy”

UK catalogue retailer Argos has decided to enter the holiday advert fray with the theme of magic. The clip opens with two girls lying on the floor, coloured markers in hand, searching through an Argos catalogue and circling their Christmas wishes. Significantly, the girls and their surroundings are black-and-white. Only the contents of the catalogue are in colour — perhaps a not-so-subtle nod to the real world’s disappointments this year, and therefore the need for a little magic to brighten things up.

Once the girls circle the magic kit they find in the catalogue, the advert switches to full colour as we enter the girls’ imagined magic show. A sign announces “An Evening with AbracaDaisy and the Incredible Lucy.” Their ordinary living room, occupied only by a few close family members, becomes a veritable hall of impossible feats and wonders. 

You might be trapped at home this year, the advert suggests. And you might not get to celebrate with as many people as you’d like. But with a little help from Argos, this Christmas can be just as magical as ever.

“And I think to myself . . .”

Argos isn’t the only brand hoping to capitalize on longing to escape the real world.

LEGO knows that lots of children will be spending Christmas at home this year — and lots of parents will be there with them, worrying how they can make the day as special as holidays past. 

This year’s LEGO holiday advert opens with a series of families at home, playing with LEGO kits and singing an updated version of “What a Wonderful World.” The older characters in the clip seem stuck in reality, building “trees of green” and “red roses too” with their LEGO blocks. The children, on the other hand, aren’t so limited. Their imaginations free them to create fantastical constructions — a sausage tree, a blue horse, and so on. 

At one point, as the parents sing the words, “And I think to myself . . .” they wear expressions of exasperation. Within the world of the advert, we are led to assume they are exasperated because it’s hard to keep up with their children’s fanciful imaginations. Yet in these faces many parents will recognize their own exasperation at the end of such a tiring year, facing the prospect of a difficult Christmas. We wonder with these parents, is it really such a wonderful world?

But the children step in to answer: With LEGO, it can still be “a pretty cool world.” The advert then takes us on a whirlwind tour of a world built by children’s imaginations, closing on the phrase, “Rebuild the world.” 

LEGO wants parents to know that they empathize with their predicament this year. And it wants the children to know it has their backs.

“The Show Must Go On!”

The most talked-about ad so far this Christmas season comes from Amazon. 

“The Show Must Go On” is one of very few adverts to tackle COVID directly. A young lady has won the star role in her ballet school’s winter show. However, we soon overhear a television news broadcast announcing school closures due to the coronavirus. At this point we know that our ambitious, starry-eyed dancer is destined for the same kind of disappointment so many people have experienced this year.

Indeed, later in the clip she receives a letter notifying her that the performance has been canceled. And yet she chooses to dance on her rooftop as her neighbors look on from their flats, including one thoughtful young man who has ordered a spotlight from Amazon. Just as he helps the young lady by illuminating her solo performance, Amazon wants to help us get through these trying times by keeping us connected to one another, no matter how separated we might feel.

“In a year like no other,” said executive director of John Lewis & Partners, Pippa Wicks, “the world has changed — so we will be delivering a Christmas campaign like no other.”

In other parts of the world, such as the US, Christmas advertisements don’t build as much anticipation as they do in the UK. Still, wherever Christmas is celebrated — and wherever people spend money on food and gifts — brands will need to carefully calibrate their tones in light of the virus.  

Like John Lewis, many companies will connect their campaigns to charitable causes. Most will want to emphasize kindness and generosity. Some will offer watchers a chance to escape into worlds of fantasy and imagination, while others will be more direct in their acknowledgements of the pandemic. 

All of them — at least those who want to succeed in connecting with consumers during a pandemic — will treat this Christmas season as unlike any other that has come before.

Learn more 

Want insights into how food and beverage brands can adapt to a different type of holiday season? Download our report, Christmas isn’t Cancelled.