As Christmas nears, British television screens are filled with heart-warming tales of lonely penguins, family reunions and homesick soldiers in an attempt to get customers to part with their cash.
More and more retailers are ditching traditional product adverts for mini movies about love and friendship that have become a national talking point, ranked against each other by the media and subject to parody online.
High-street department store John Lewis, which started the trend a few years ago, again leads the pack with a tear-jerking tale of a little boy who makes his lonely toy penguin’s Christmas by buying him a mate.
The two-minute video, which reportedly cost Â£7 million (8.8 million euros, $11 million), has been watched more than 17 million times since it went online in early November.
The retailer is also doing roaring trade in little fluffy toys of loving penguins Monty and Mabel, and a range of related merchandise.
Hot on their heels are the World War I soldiers imagined by supermarket Sainsbury’s, whose three-minute ad tells the story of the Christmas truce between British and German forces in 1914.
The video has more than 12 million views on YouTube, although it has also been accused of being a crass attempt to commercialise the centenary of the start of the four-year conflict.
Many people also viewed it as a risk, given that there is no mention of Sainsbury’s until the very end.
But experts say the importance of Christmas in the trading calendar is persuading advertising agencies to try new things.
November and December can represent up to 50 percent of annual turnover for some non-food retailers.
It is hard to gauge the impact of such campaigns, but evidence gathered by the IPA advertising industry body is “pretty unequivocal” that such campaigns work, she told AFP.
John Lewis Christmas sales have increased for the past three years despite a difficult retail climate, and the first figures from this season suggest this trend will continue.
– Anonymous goodwill –
John Lewis is credited with shifting the competition from a battle to sell cut-price booze to making consumers feel good about spending their money on presents.
Their seasonal offering is now “a mini-movie with its own narrative” which gives an “uplifting, tear-jerking advertising experience”, said Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Kantar Retail.
Viewers have bought into this vision to such an extent that the soundtracks to the last two ads — both breathy covers of famous songs, as is this year’s track — have gone to number one in the charts.
Other retailers have moved in a similar direction, including high-street store Marks & Spencer, which previously featured celebrities and a full range of products in its ads.
This year it heralded the launch of its Christmas campaign with a series of anonymous acts of goodwill around Britain.
Ranging from covering a primary school in snow overnight to giving gifts to night shift workers, the acts were publicised by a Twitter account @TheTwoFairies — later revealed as the two winged stars of the TV commercials.
The question now is how long customers will accept the saccharine vision of Christmas on offer in favour, say, of something that makes them laugh.
Spoofs are proliferating online — in one mash-up, Monty the penguin ends up as Christmas lunch, while in another his first meeting with Mabel is re-dubbed with Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.