Christmas Campaign Review: The verdict on the best and worst international Christmas ads of 2018

In this Christmas Campaign Review special, Mumbrella invites two of the industry's most senior creatives to offer their views on the biggest seasonal advertising campaigns from across the globe. Alex Derwin, executive creative director, BMF and Guy Marshall, strategy director and partner, Bashful to share their views on what works.

Brand: John Lewis
Agency: adam&eveDDB
The Verdict: A clear Christmas winner and a phenomenal ad

Alex Derwin, executive creative director, BMF, says:

Derwin says the John Lewis ad is phenomenal

“This is a phenomenal ad. All the elements work seamlessly together to make an incredible feat of production look effortless – the star power, the production values, the storytelling, the transitions in the music, and the flow of the edit all do their bit to keep the viewer on an emotional string.

“The idea hits a nerve too – we all want our gifts to be inspired, and inspiring. This positions John Lewis as the store that can give you both. It certainly ups the ante on Christmas shopping – what can I buy my niece that will send her on her way to superstardom – no pressure.

“I didn’t notice the tagline the first time I watched it – I think I was too wrapped up in jealousy and the wonder of it all. When I took a second look the line is pitch perfect. It’s a heartfelt sentiment without being slushy.

“The only thing that doesn’t sit comfortably with me is the endless merchandising that has become a central part of a John Lewis Christmas ad. It works for stuffed penguins or Age UK greetings cards, but this year so much of the talk has been about how smart the partnership with Elton John is. Selling the piano makes sense, but the Elton vinyl, vintage T-Shirts, and the upcoming Elton John tour are all being spruiked one way or another off the back of this year’s ad. It’s an understandable business move, and everyone deserves to do well from this lovely piece of work, but it’s a bit too mercenary for me. Part of me wishes they’d left it at this beautifully made Christmas ad.”

Rating: 9.5/10

Guy Marshall, strategy director and partner, Bashful, says:

Marshall says the ad is a clear winner

“I, like everyone, love Elton John. And of course Your Song is peak Elton. This is a clear winner for UK retailer that made the most misty eyed evocation of the Christmas dream.

“The ad elevates present giving from the prosaic to the infinite. It suggests convincingly that the presents you give don’t just define what your children will do on Christmas morning but potentially what they will do with the rest of their lives. (Seriously, no pressure) And it does it all without some saccharine, didactic voice over telling us so. The English diaspora looks forward to the John Lewis Christmas ad and this year no one could be disappointed.

“If I can be permitted one minor quibble it does have a small executional problem. The final scene shouldn’t have returned to adult Elton at the piano. It should finish with kid Elton (Great casting, I wonder how many kids they saw to find one who so perfectly embodied the cheeky charm of Captain Fantastic himself?) hitting the first note of Your Song. Of course we can forgive the marketers desire to maximize screen time with talent they no doubt paid absolutely top dollar for.

“I pity the creative team who gets this brief next year.”

Rating: 9/10

Brand: Sainsbury’s
Agency: Wieden+Kennedy London
The Verdict: Beautifully made and very entertaining but it lacks relevance

Derwin says:

“This one jabbed so hard on the cutesy button I really wanted to dislike it. Did they really cast a girl with gappy teeth and a lisp, dress her as a Christmas tree star, and have her sing a catchy one-hit-wonder from the 90’s? Yes, they did. And – for those of us who aren’t the Grinch – they pulled it off. The secret is that the kids really look like they’re having a ball – the performances, smiles, and energy all seem genuine, and that translates to the viewer.

“There are also enough funny, off-kilter moments sprinkled throughout to prevent you from reaching for a bucket. The queen in the makeshift TV waving and mugging off the camera, the giant glitter-pouring gravy boat, and the adorable bauble who can’t quite squeeze through the curtains at the show’s finale keep you smiling and genuinely engaged throughout. My favourite part is when the kid dressed as a plug runs up and jumps into the socket and lights up the whole show.

“I have some issues with the line, and we didn’t really need the ugly type to tell us what the show was called, but if the job of this ad is make me like Sainsbury’s more it does the trick in spades.”

Rating: 7/10

Marshall says:

“I watched About A Boy last night due to the unseen but felt power of Netflix algorithms to decide how I spend my time. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out and it held up reasonably well despite it’s questionable gender politics and the even more questionable facial expressions of an over acting Hugh Grant.

“Seeing this spot today it immediately recalls that painful scene where a young Marcus sings Killing Me Softly to please a depressive mother. (played brilliantly by Aussie treasure Toni Colette) This ad follows a similar trajectory but instead of a guitar playing Hugh Grant saving the day it is a school concert for the ages that escalates with increasing complexity and razzamatazz.

“It’s beautifully made and very entertaining. But it does leave me asking, so what? The line on the end ‘We give all we’ve got for the ones we love’ attempts to justify the minor price premium over everyday choice Tesco. But it is hard to see how the ad brings that promise to life and leaves me asking three questions.

“First; do school concerts like this only exist in the world of turn of the millennium British rom coms or do actual English schools put on shows this good?

“Second; What’s this got to do with groceries? Third: When did the universally acknowledged worst song of the nineties transcend into being considered a classic?”

Rating: 6/10

Brand: Iceland
Agency: Mother
The Verdict: Both a risky and admirable ad but an odd positioning

Derwin says:

“You’ve got to admire Iceland for making a stand against palm oil, and for using the biggest retail opportunity of the year to tell people about it. The fact that this ad was banned for being too political is baffling.

“Mixing politics with your Christmas campaign comes at greater risk to the advertiser than to a viewer. The viewer can turn it off, tune it out, and make an informed decision to shop somewhere else. The advertiser spent millions of dollars on a point of principle that shoppers may or may not care about.

“Thankfully shoppers did care, and shared it and talked about it around the globe. The fact that it was banned was central to the conversation – given it more eyeballs for less money than a paid TV campaign would have. Take that censors. But whether that’s enough to make people want to buy their Turkey from Iceland is another thing. I hope so.

“It is a shame they reused an old Greenpeace ad. I’d have thought that such a big financial commitment to remove palm oil from their own label products would have deserved more than repurposing an ad so many people have already seen. I wished they’d have backed a ballsy approach with a ballsy new ad and execution – I’d like to think the risk would have been worth the reward.”

Rating: 6/10

Marshall says:

“Isn’t this a very English scandal? In summary it was banned for being overtly political. And this ban turned into its own self perpetuating tabloid scandal. The ad was originally a Greenpeace spot that was rebadged by Iceland, a name and concept that I will forever find funny. Only in Wales could there be a supermarket that specialises in frozen food. An observation I’m allowed to make as someone who is 14% Welsh. Thank you Ancestory.com.

“But onto the frozen meat and potatoes of the issue at hand, brands rejecting palm oil is certainly a good idea and this ad while not perfect does tell the story in a way that is quite moving. I do however wonder how much a pre packaged food store wants to beat its chest with an environmental story. Not using palm oil for ‘home brands’ (confirming that it is used in non home brands that they stock) is a good thing but what about all the other ways they can and no doubt do damage the environment. It feels to me an odd positioning for a pre packaged, frozen food supermarket to take.

“Putting your logo on the end of an environmental organisation’s ad and then making a half promise about not stocking the vandalising ingredient in question does feel like the most egregious of green washing.”

Rating: 3/10

Brand: Boots
Agency: Ogilvy UK
The Verdict: An ad with executional problems that let’s the insights down

Derwin says:

“I don’t mind the idea ‘Get them something that says you get them’, and perhaps a particular shade of lipstick can be that, but the problems I have with this ad are mostly executional.

“They’ve changed the lyrics to a bad song and made them worse. I can see they were probably going for an intimate, honest approach, but being off-key and having the lyrics guide us shot-for-shot through the ad makes it hard to watch. The product placement every 5 seconds from the first 5 seconds definitely doesn’t help the central relationship feel genuine. At 1 minute 30 seconds it’s almost a minute shorter than John Lewis, but whereas John Lewis rollicks along and leaves you wanting more, this ad leaves me wanting to never see it again.

“Perhaps mums and daughters will watch it and be won over by its authentic portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship. I found it cringey.”

Rating: 2/10


“English people love Boots. Get them talking about it and they won’t stop. This may just be my girlfriend but like all good planners I’m going to extrapolate from a sample size of one a universal, guiding insight. The campaign attempts to tap into this affection but get’s it all wrong in execution.

“The thought “Get them something that says you get them” feels like the right strategy and speaks to the way thoughtfulness can transform a seemingly pragmatic gift into something more magical. But the execution lets this insight down terribly.

‘The film fails the most basic structural tenets of story telling but achieves it’s true nadir when we are supposed to believe a teenager has been emotionally moved by her mother singing in a Christmas choir. The writer of this ad has surely never met that rare species, the teenager, in the real world.

“This is the only thing less believable than this is Theresa May’s leadership.”

Rating: 3/10

Brand: Twitter
Agency: The Romans/ Mother London
The Verdict: An old idea 

Derwin says:

“Avoiding the sentiment of John Lewis and Sainsbury’s might have been a good strategy, but I’ve seen this idea before, and better executed. People who have the misfortune of sharing the name of someone (or something in this case) famous, and have to suffer the consequences.

“Besides it being a well-worn idea, the whole conceit isn’t persuasive. Twitter is such a powerful platform for starting meaningful conversations and making meaningful change, why not motivate people to jump on board and make a difference at this time of year.”

Rating: 4/10

Marshall says:

“Twitter falls into a category of things that I call; Can’t Try, Will Love. (Other examples include heroin, golf and Fortnite.) As such I don’t have a Twitter account and regard the entire thing with certain distance. But it seems to me that this ad celebrates the worst of Twitter.

“We’ve all heard the story of the man who shares a name with a reviled politician or criminal and has to shut down his whole online identity due to the vitriol and abuse incidentally suffered.

“While some might like being messaged incessantly because their name is John Lewis, I think most would hate it.”

Rating: 4/10

Brand: Tesco
Agency: BBH London
The Verdict: Boring insight and boring creative

Derwin says: 

“Speaking of rehashing – how many more sprout jokes are going to come out of the UK before we call a truce? Not that this ad revolves around sprouts, it doesn’t have time because it’s too busy checking off other reheated jokes.

“It all gives the impression of one long arm wrestle between agency and client. Lots of boxes ticked, lots of products featured, and I think they’ve done a pretty good job in the writing and production to make it not seem too laboured. The acting is good, the direction is solid, and the food porn is porny enough. It just doesn’t connect emotionally, and in the Christmas ad arms race your biggest weapon is ‘The Feels’.

“Also, the idea seems a little redundant – Everyone’s welcome at Tesco. I could be charitable and say it talks about range, but really? Of course everyone is welcome at Tesco, and Asda, and Sainsbury’s. Everyone except shoplifters.”

Rating: 5/10

Marshall says:

“There is no brief more likely to lead to boring work than a range story. The logic goes like this; we have a product suited to every customer in the world, if we just say that then everyone in the world will shop with us. Boring insight. Boring creative.

“I’m not sure what Everyone’s Welcome is meant to make me feel. I mean was there a suggestion that someone wasn’t welcome? Like who? The old, the infirm, the Amish?

“Tesco’s described the work as a celebration of diversity. The only thing worse than green washing is diversity bathing. These anodyne messages of inclusivity are boring, lacking insight and self congratulatory without impacting the world in any positive way.


Rating: 4/10

Brand: Waitrose
Agency: adam&eveDDB
The Verdict: The wrong insight but a brave and different ad

Derwin says:

“I liked this up to the reveal. Riding on the popularity of John Lewis as their sister company is smart, and the fact they’re having a friendly dig makes it funny. There’s a simple insight in the time poor behavior of the modern family who fast-forward through one of the most anticipated parts of Christmas, but unfortunately that’s not the insight. This ad is about the delicious Stollen and irresistible it is. It’s a tired idea, and when the line appeared, if I didn’t audibly groan my brain definitely did.”

Rating: 4/10

Marshall says:

“The English are famous for being cynical, afraid of emotion and excelling at satirical comedy. Like most Australians I think of the entire island as a forever running episode of The Office. And then Christmas happens and the entire place becomes more sincere than a Midwestern American talking about the founding fathers.

“I liked that this spot from Waitrose was different to everything else. It gave me a genuine laugh. And as Waitrose and John Lewis are part of the same business it kicked goals for everyone.

“English Christmas advertising has become such a mature cultural form that it is having its own postmodern moment. Expect to see more of this in the coming years.”

Rating: 8/10


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