Helmet-haired devil children, horses with legwarmers, a young Alan Hughes . . . nothing can hold a candle to the TV ads of Christmas past
This year the winner of Christmas ad season (November) was prematurely declared to be John Lewis. The radical Corbynite workers’ cooperative provoked tears of acquisitive melancholy with a piano version of Half a World Away, and an infant voyeur who befriends a lonely old moon-man and sends him a balloon-propelled telescope. Now he can tearfully view the John Lewis-induced gluttony of others (she’s basically rubbing it in).
People feel strongly about John Lewis ads. So don’t watch with a colleague and say “this ad isn’t very realistic. If the old man really lived on the moon, loneliness would be the least of his problems.” Because then your weeping colleague will accuse you of having “no soul.”
Instead watch Mog’s Christmas Calamity, the Sainsbury’s ad written by Judith Kerr. In it, the eponymous cat destroys the family home and teaches everyone the true meaning of Christmas (family, friends, cats). Everyone agrees that that ad is good, even though as a cat owner I dispute the notion that cats ever feel remorse.
And also, while you’re here, consider these terrifying Christmas advertisements from the olden days, which I’ve just remembered.
Precocious children force Santa to eat Cornflakes
Three children: an entrepreneurial young Republican who probably now runs Goldman Sachs, an embittered 10-yearold spoilsport (“This is very unorthodox!” she says, in an English or American accent depending on the market) and one of the changelings from Village of the Damned, attempt to entrap Santa Claus. As bait they use the refreshing corn treat invented by health nut Will Keith Kellogg at his Battle Creek sanatorium. The bickering tots fall asleep, all except the helmet-haired devil child, who proves ineffectual in the face of the glutinous interloper and can only mimic his laugh of triumph. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” she says, chillingly.
Toys R Us’s animated fun factory
Scenario: A giraffe runs a toy emporium staffed by children. This advert isn’t explicitly Christmassy, unless you think an animalistic figurehead overseeing a factory of child labourers is Christmassy. It’s certainly horrifyingly honest. Then again, the very name of this institution is an existential challenge. “Toy’s R Us” is, if you think about it, just another way of saying “We are But Playthings” But playthings for whom? The cosmos? God? The giraffe-faced autocrat that the soundtrack calls “Jeffrey”? The question is not answered in the ad. We may never know. Sleep well children!
Budweiser! Horses! Christmas!
Clydesdales are big horses who wear legwarmers like the kids from Fame but unlike the kids from Fame do not break into song. In this ad, these camp, confident beasts pull a sleigh through the snow to the accompaniment of a sleigh bell-enhanced Christmas tune. If this ad appears to ring with authenticity it’s because this is how Budweiser is actually made: big horses trudge through snow until the melting sludge runs into Beachwood-aged caskets. Yum!
Coca-Cola teaches the world to sing, Christmas edition
Coca Cola declares its dominion over all the races in this yuletide iteration of their classic advert (the ad the MadMen finale implied was written by Don Draper), by getting handsome people to hold a candle-lit vigil on a hillside while singing about ending both homelessness and Cokelessness. So far, so 1970s and utopian. And yet... there are no old people on the hillside. And there are certainly no 40-year-old pop culture journalists on the hillside. What happened to the old-people of the hillside, Coca-Cola? And what the hell is your secret ingredient anyway? Is it “people”? I know your game.
A clownish stranger ice-skates with your children for McDonalds
The plot of this classic ad is pretty straightforward: The clown from Stephen King’s It arrives at a frozen lake to marshal a group of ice-skating youngsters, presumably so he can spirit them off to the kingdom of damned children where he rests and feeds. Animated animals look on helplessly as this flame-haired icon of madness drags these helpless mites across the icy lake. One little boy has been left behind. “I want to go to the kingdom of damned children too!” his sad eyes seem to say. But the terrifying apparition has not forgotten the boy. He comes back to spin him around while sporting a mercilessly red-lipped grin. “Happy Holidays!” sings a voiceover, but it doesn’t mention which holiday, so I presume it’s a celebration of Baal or whoever McDonalds board-members worshipped in 1986 (Full disclosure: I may be allowing my fear of clowns affect my reading of the text).
Tesco ad about the aging process
Decreasingly grainy fake home movies follow a couple through successive happy Christmasses to the horror of lonely, voyeuristic old men with telescopes. The ad concludes with our everyman hero, now aged and close to death, sitting with a grandchild on his lap and the words “Tesco: Every Little Helps” on the screen and not the words: “I lament my lost youth.” John Lewis pulled the same trick with their Only a Woman advert in 2010. At Christmas we love to contemplate the relentless, merciless passage of time.
Sainsbury’s ad about how Christmassy war is
Look how handsome men of differing nationalities can share chocolate in the midst of war? Why are we not all like the handsome men? War is bad. Chocolate is good. Sainsbury’s sell chocolate.
ESB ad featuring nascent Alan Hughes
To the strains of Dusty Springfield’s I Think I’m Going Back, a young man is collected from a rural train station and driven slowly to the family home where his mammy is using lots of electricity. She’s going mad for the electricity, wandering around plugging everything in. Meanwhile, the youngster stares reflectively out the window of the car contemplating how he will, one day, host Family Fortunes on TV3. Somehow even back in the 1980s, I could tell this was destined to happen just by watching the ad. I felt like Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, so I did.
‘Happy Holidays!’ sings a voiceover, but it doesn’t mention which holiday, so I presume it’s a celebration of Baal or whoever McDonalds board-members worshipped in 1986
War is bad. Chocolate is good. Sainsbury’s sell chocolate