Is 2018 the year of the experiential Christmas ad?

by Natalia Riley

30th November 2018

Love it or loathe it, the launch of the Christmas advert has, for many, usurped the traditional advent calendar in kicking off the festive countdown. While John Lewis only started the trend for blockbuster campaigns as recently as 2007, the yearly advertising bonanza has become pivotal to getting into the Christmas spirit.

This year, we have been treated to a nativity play by Sainsbury’s, the latest adventures of Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot, and a familiar collection of humorous Christmas clichés by Waitrose. So far, so Love Actually.

But the ads that are really resonating this year are those that have managed to bring the audience into the heart of the campaign, through experiential marketing. It begs the question, is 2018 the year of the immersive Christmas ad?

“There’s a Rang-tan in my bedroom”

Let’s start with Iceland, who this year partnered with Greenpeace to showcase the environmental impact of palm oil cultivation. Problematically for a TV spot, “Say Hello to ‘Rang-tan” hasn’t yet made it onto our screens. That’s because Clearcast, the advertising regulatory body, has deemed the campaign “too political” to pass as a branded advertisement.

Despite this, Iceland has dominated the Christmas ad press coverage, racking up over 15 million views on Twitter. And that’s not just because of the controversy surrounding Clearcast. Shortly after the decision was reached, the frozen food retailer released an animatronic orangutan onto the streets of London, bringing the mass deforestation wrought by palm oil farming into the daily lives of Londoners.

While Iceland may not have planned this interactive element of their Christmas campaign until after Clearcast’s ruling, the success of their subsequent immersive strategy is evident. At the time of writing, a petition to show the spot on television has reached almost one million signatures.

“And you can tell everybody…”

John Lewis also bought its Christmas advert to life this year, teasing consumers by changing its stores’ signage to “John” days before the ad’s screening. This fuelled intense media speculation as to whether this stunt confirmed Elton John as the ad’s star. It turns out, it did.

The modern pioneers of the Christmas advert went one step further, announcing that consumers could step into the set of The Boy and the Piano through a “behind the scenes experience” at retailers flagship Oxford Street store. Not only does this create an opportunity for thousands of social media impressions, but it fosters families’ relationships with the John Lewis brand.

Experiential activations may have garnered views, clicks and shares for Iceland and John Lewis, but there has been a different kind of publicity for the original festive immersive marketing experience. Coca Cola has cancelled a third of UK stops on its Christmas Truck Tour, due to public criticism that it promotes childhood obesity and tooth decay.

2018 may well be the year of the experiential Christmas ad, but the experiences offered by brands must complement the contemporary zeitgeist. Environmental protection and seventies’ pop are in, but the acceptability of sugary soft drinks is rotting away.