Sue Higgs
Dec 20, 2019

Why save all the populist campaigns for Christmas?

Advertisers put a bet on Christmas when they'd be wiser to create work that resonates across the year.

Why save all the populist campaigns for Christmas?

'Tis the season of the Christmas ad. But without getting too bah humbug about it, why do we wait for the festive season to unwrap our truths, our consumer insights and our generous budgets? 

Why does it have to say turkey on the brief to make work that talks to humans in a human way, to share emotion? In a nutshell, for us to do our most populist work? 

Populist advertising hasn’t been popular as of late, having been rather foolishly cast aside in favour of personalisation and purpose. But as the untimely passing of Paul Silburn goes to show, we do love creating populist work that really connects with consumers.

Just a glimpse of the John West bear or the John Smith's beer ads can make us smile. It’s beautifully crafted work that talks to actual people. It’s the work that enters the collective consciousness that gets talked about and makes us all feel something.  

Yet the power of populist advertising, its ability to enter the nation’s culture and psyche, is now reserved mainly for Christmas ads. It’s high time that these festive campaigns, which so lift the nation and give us all a heart-warming feeling, become inspiration for the norm throughout the year. 

There’s no doubt that John Lewis (pictured, above) did an exceptional job in rewriting the rules and making Christmas advertising an event that other brands then decided they must win too. Advertisers, not just in the retail category, put a bet on Christmas when they would be wiser to back winning across the calendar.

Stella Artois used to make just two ads a year, because that was all it needed, and everyone still talks about those campaigns. Volkswagen was the same. It wasn’t about Christmas; it was about doing a great brand or product ad and ensuring people remember those great spots. 

Today, we’re all trying really hard to make culture, but all that fantastic Tango stuff entered culture because it was great communications that hit the public at a really amazing moment. There’s a clear lesson here: we should look to make culture, not just hijack it. 

Of course, that’s harder now. Those famous ads were about speaking to people at eye level rather than chasing them around digital channels, and we’re in an era when media choices dictate that spend – which could be used instead in a mass forum – is diverted elsewhere.

Despite this, some great brands, such as Nike, don’t play by the current rules, showing us what’s possible on a consistent basis. These are brands that have full confidence in all their communications, in who they are and in whom they’re talking to. 

Having sat on a few juries over the years, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the level of creativity overall is on a downward trajectory. But my hope is that what we achieve at Christmas is something that can be applied to every single piece of communications: all the insights, warmth, rigour behind the production, smartness in the casting and diversity cues.

Perhaps that will also show the way for advertising to shed its somewhat tarnished reputation – not just encouraging shoppers to race for the finish at the end of the year, but by building latent love for brands across a whole 12-month period. Keep that flow of populism coming and both the industry, and the people we connect with, will be better off. 

Sue Higgs is group creative director at Grey London

Campaign UK

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