Can We Find the True Meaning of Christmas in a Penguin?

04/12/2014 15:54 GMT | Updated 02/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Take a close look at this year's big Christmas ads and you'll find something rather surprising. Is John Lewis seeking to flog us some new towels? No, they bring a tale of love and friendship. Are the M&S fairies trying to sell pants? Well maybe, but if you watch closely their priorities are to save lost cats, help singletons find love and promote healthsome outdoor play. Are struggling retailer Sainsbury's going all out to boost their panettone sales? No sir, they've transported us to the trenches to retell the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce, where peace briefly and poignantly broke out to the strains of Silent Night.

With the horrors of Black Friday already behind us and the promotional emails piling up like snowdrifts in our inboxes, it's hard to ignore the central role advertising now plays in our Yuletide celebrations. But this year, Christmas isn't about value, it's about values. And as we come out of the deepest recession in memory, the marketers have set aside their sales targets and taken on a historic challenge; to imbue Christmas once more with the values of sharing and togetherness on which it was founded (assuming you're happy to forget the bit about Jesus being born).

But before we crack open the Hallelujah chorus and a bottle of Taste the Difference Prosecco, isn't this in improbable contrast to the increasingly rapacious commercialism brands display for the rest of the year? Sainsbury's were in the spotlight in September when an internal poster, intended to encourage staff to persuade customers to spend 50p more on every visit, was mistakenly displayed in the window of a store. Despite the flames of outrage duly fanned on Twitter, what stayed with me was the weight of opinion arguing that it was perfectly acceptable for a supermarket to be trying to cajole their customers into buying more. Indeed, when questioned on this supposed blunder on the Today programme, Sainsbury's CEO Mike Coupe said,"it wouldn't be surprising in any business for us to try to sell more". Any suspicion that their Christmas ad might be misusing Remembrance to sell more seasonal goodies has also been robustly dismissed in the majority of online comments I've seen. "Don't be so cynical" is the gist of many responses.

So what is actually going on here?

Could it be that there's a spiritual vacuum, once filled by the church, at the heart of contemporary Christmas? It's clear that there's a genuine popular desire to find meaning in this festival. This clearly goes beyond the things we actually do at Christmas; a 2012 poll identified watching TV, playing party games, getting drunk and having sex among the top seasonal activities. In beginning to position themselves around the true spirit of Christmas, retailers are simply playing back what market research is telling them; that there is an opportunity to reinvent and own those values in a way which makes people more likely to favour them over their competitors. The irony is that this forms part of a strategy for selling more and therefore contributes further to the commercialisation everyone thinks is undermining the true values of Christmas.

The other trend to note is an increasingly confident group of brands that feel it is OK to take this path. They are happy to try to fill the gap vacated by other sources of spiritual authority and see nothing wrong in doing so. And what's more, for the most part, the public seem happy with this new arrangement where we subcontract the spiritual bit of Christmas to businesses as well as the commercial bit.

At a time when our culture, identity and values are in flux, businesses are among the many institutions redefining what they are for. In a good many cases, this includes a genuine desire to make a positive contribution to society beyond the simple platitudes of corporate social responsibility. But this transition often seems incoherent and certainly doesn't stretch to rescuing Christmas from commercialism. John Lewis, for one, has a proud record of ethics but it's hard to imagine that Monty the Penguin is a deliberate exercise in changing the nation's values as opposed to just positioning a brand. And many attempts from businesses to engage their customers on social or environmental issues remain clumsy, such as the well intentioned but cringeworthily executed Project Sunlight from Unilever. Consumer brands also tend to find it hard to offer solutions that don't involve consumption. Whether it's Unilever's brand rather than issue-led approach - Make soup, save the planet, says Knorr - or Sainsbury's Christmas message - buy a chocolate bar to help the Royal British Legion - these answers feel inadequate to the scale of the questions.

The charity sector is turning to similar short cuts. 2014 has been the year of no make-up selfies and ice bucket challenges. The disquiet expressed about these outwardly successful initiatives, as well as the debate about Band Aid 30, has focused on whether these forgettable, bitesize consumer acts are the right kind of response to the systemic challenges they purport to address.

Meanwhile the dark side of consumer culture is closer to the surface than ever. Whether it's the opening of a new Primark, looting in the 2011 riots or Black Friday punch-ups in supermarkets, it's clear that the power and appeal of consumer culture, especially to those who struggle to afford the entry costs, is undimmed.

So coming back to Christmas, is it a good thing that our high street brands are trying to distance themselves from the hard sell of previous years and own the true spirit of Christmas? Much as I relish the creativity of many of their efforts, I feel that this trend tells a worrying story both about the faltering attempts of business to redefine its place in the world and about our own need to grasp at almost anything to create meaning in our lives. In my book, we could do with rather more powerful stories at Christmas time. Any ideas?