How Are Ads Navigating the Cost-of-Living Crisis at Christmas?
The cost-of-living crisis. It’s on everyone’s minds, particularly as the festive period and the associated increase in spending draws closer.
Rising food prices and surging energy bills, amongst other things, have caused the cost of living to increase at its fastest rate in 40 years, leaving many households across the UK struggling to afford the basic necessities. In fact, 48% of Brits are already planning to cut down on their usual festive outlay, making Christmas 2022 a far more muted affair than in previous years.
As the hotly anticipated Christmas adverts start to roll in, it’s clear that many retailers and their marketing departments are choosing to tone down their campaigns to reflect the fragile economic climate. And while fans are praising these retailers for being sensitive to the struggles of many UK families, critics claim that the stripped-back adverts lack the Christmas spark that consumers crave in the lead-up to the big day.
So, how have marketing departments been navigating the cost-of-living crisis, and has it proved successful?
While most retailers are avoiding any direct mention of the cost-of-living crisis, they are instead opting to focus on hosting the perfect Christmas without breaking the bank. During a period when homeowners are anxious about staying afloat over the festive period, several retailers are using their campaigns to shine a spotlight on price and affordability.
Poignancy over product placement
Over the past 15 years, John Lewis has firmly cemented itself into the top tier of Christmas advertising. Its annual festive television adverts have become something of a cult classic, with the nation eagerly anticipating their arrival each year.
In its latest instalment, the retail giant uses its 90-second window to highlight the concerning number of children in care. Following the painful journey of a man attempting to master the art of skateboarding, the advert’s closing scene reveals that he is in fact a prospective foster father hoping to learn a few tricks in order to bring him and his foster daughter, Ellie, closer together.
The advert has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public, who have applauded its conscious lack of product placement. The only product spotlighted in the video is a skateboard that sits on the lower end of the pricing scale, costing just £35.
John Lewis’ choice of topic isn’t without its critics, however. Those working in the care industry have questioned the authenticity of the advert, claiming that the retailer has failed to properly research the difficult processes involved in fostering and adoption – with both usually taking around six months. There have also been accusations of insensitivity, with some viewers comparing the advert to the Dog Trust’s infamous ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ campaign
Although not directly mentioning the cost-of-living crisis, the distinct absence of product placement in John Lewis’ Christmas campaign helps shift the focus from consumerism to acts of kindness, suggesting to viewers that the festive season doesn’t always need to be characterised by spending copious amounts of money.
Affordability over affluence
Filmed loosely in the style of a party-political broadcast, affordability is front and centre in Tesco’s Christmas campaign. The ‘Christmas Party’ broadcasts its festive manifesto, promising that the “only thing we’ll cut are prices…and cake”. An obvious nod to austerity, the advert pledges a series of price cuts, all of which can help feed a family of five for under £25 on the big day.
Politics is a notoriously tricky minefield to navigate in advertising, with the Broadcast Code for Advertising Practice (BCAP) listing a series of strict stipulations for advertisers. Back in 2018, for example, Iceland’s Christmas campaign featuring Greenpeace’s heart-wrenching animation about a baby orangutan whose rainforest home is destroyed was banned from UK screens for breaching political advertising rules.
Despite the potential controversy, Tesco’s festive campaign directly addresses the growing concerns of many families over the recent rise in food prices. In fact, Tesco is one of the only large supermarket chains that mentions specific examples of pricing, with competitors like Waitrose and M&S opting not to advertise individual prices.
Pay the Difference?
Not all retailers are choosing to take a more ‘stripped-back’ approach to their festive advertising this year, however. In its 2022 advert, Sainsbury’s creates a fantasy kingdom ruled over by one of the nation’s favourite TV personalities, Alison Hammond. In the 60-second clip, the bubbly television presenter stars as a countess whose disliking for mince pies is assuaged once she tastes a young baker’s fresh take on the festive classic.
Starring alongside Alison Hammond are trays and trays of delicious-looking food, most of which feature as part of Sainsbury’s premium Taste the Difference range. Marketed as an “indulgence” for customers looking to splash out on higher-quality meals, the Taste the Difference range has become one of the supermarket chain’s biggest assets.
However, with the ONS reporting a 14.5% increase in food inflation earlier this year, some critics are unhappy with Sainsbury’s indulgent Christmas advert, claiming that being confronted with platters and platters of expensive food is making many families feel uncomfortable about their more modest Christmas meals.
A Christmas compromise?
Striking the balance between demonstrating sensitivity to the ongoing cost of living crisis and getting people excited about the festive period is a difficult task for any marketer. It’s clear that the most effective way to achieve this is to allude to the ongoing crisis by explaining how the brand is planning on supporting customers through this difficult time.
Amazon’s 2020 ‘The Show Must Go On’ advert, which told the story of a young ballet dancer whose first show is cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, captured the attention of viewers for all the right reasons. The delivery giant recognised the frustration and sadness of the pandemic’s new restrictions and assured customers that it would still be delivering gifts throughout the festive period.
It’s important for marketers to recognise the difference between creating a campaign about the cost-of-living crisis, and a campaign about how to continue finding joy during the crisis. The adverts which have resonated with the public in this year’s collection of Christmas campaigns are those which are reminding people that festive fun can still be had despite the obstacles presented by the current economic climate.