Christmas in a time of corona

With parties postponed and mistletoe against the guidelines, what should this year’s Christmas adverts say instead about modern Britain?

Despite having existed since the 1950s, it was only in 2013 that John Lewis first sparked tears and tradition through their televised Christmas advert debut. Now with an audience of several million and the power to launch backing tracks to the top of the charts, they have developed into an annual arms race. But falling public ratings suggest that customer minds are elsewhere… 

With the public and retailers alike hit hard by Covid, there are obvious issues of insensitivity. Often an opportunity to ‘flash the cash’, the amount spent on such adverts is at best eye-watering. 2019 saw Mariah Carey cash £9 million as the face of crisps and similarly, 2018 saw John Lewis splashing out £8 million. Yet with layoffs into the thousands at big stores across the country and unemployment at the highest level in three years, companies have chosen to react by dropping the glitz for a family focus. Sainsbury’s release of home-movie style footage is nostalgia-heavy, and both Coca Cola and Aldi’s family reunions pack a blockbuster hit (Academy Award-winning at the least).

Keen to maintain tact, many companies have struck up partnerships with charities. M&S has pledged £2 million to a variety of causes and John Lewis is working with Foodshare and Homestart to distribute 100,000 meals across the country. Despite their consumerist origins, there has been an acknowledgment of the economic reality many families are facing, with Trussell Trust forecasting a 61% increase in food parcels from October to December. There is a general message of kindness from the big retailers, with companies like Asda celebrating a Christmas on the cheap.

There has been a customary – even if ironic – nod to struggling independents and the creative industries by the big corporations. Many small businesses are unable to open up shop under new Covid regulations, while three million self-employed people have been left out of pocket. Not on The High Street’s advert pays homage to this by highlighting the wide range of independent businesses out there. The team behind John Lewis celebrate some live-action magic, while another shorter, complimentary advert features the work of four new graduates; a gesture towards the creative industries knocked sideways by the pandemic and a misguided government campaign. 

What can adverts tell us about modern Britain then? The ease with which retailers have incorporated them into their adverts suggest how much Covid has become part of our daily lives. Instead of trying to transport us to the magical wonderlands of adverts past, we are given the homely and domestic. Corona, we are reassured, won’t stop us this Christmas.