Christmas Adverts: Corporate Or Cultural?

14/11/2016 12:11
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It's that time of year again. The latest entry in the John Lewis Christmas advert series has bounced onto our screens like a ragtag band of thrill-seeking woodland creatures. But before we rush out to buy trampolines for our kids (and our dogs), let's take a moment to think about how big the John Lewis Christmas commercials have become.

With millions of viewers every year, and a phenomenal amount of public buzz, these adverts seem to have become part of the British cultural canon. But is that right? Can corporate videos ever really be art?

Christmas adverts: the nation's favourite festive films

John Lewis adverts are so well-liked that they have teaser trailers and 'release dates', like theatrical blockbusters. The pre-release hype for this year's advert was so strong that The Sun created a 2000-word webpage to answer fans' questions. People were so anxious to see what John Lewis would come up with this year that they mistook the work of a student for the real thing.

With this amount of excitement, it's reached the point where John Lewis shouldn't really have to pay to air their adverts on TV any more. The TV channels should be paying them.

2014's John Lewis Christmas advert--the classic #MontythePenguin--reached 16.3 million online views just four days after its launch. Compare that to the same year's X Factor viewership (9.1 million) and it's a wonder Simon Cowell didn't cancel the show and take up work as a lovelorn arctic seabird.

Other Christmas ads have taken on a similar blockbuster-esque popularity. M&S's 2016 offering was declared "one hundred times better than John Lewis" by viewers on Twitter in what hopefully will spark the supermarket equivalent of Biggie v Tupac.

The widely-spoken phrase "It's not Christmas until the Coca-Cola advert comes on the telly," is symptomatic of how the season has been hijacked by corporations taking away from what Christmas is really about: giving presents to children just in case they grow up to be the messiah and you really need to be in their good books.

In light of their massive popularity, we have to ask if there is more to these adverts than simple sales work.

Do ads do more than tell us what to buy?

Festive adverts don't win our hearts because we've had a little too much eggnog. Corporate videos capture the public imagination all year round, even in that dark 11-month period when eggnog is absent from the supermarket shelves.

These iconic ads of the noughties for example, like it or not, are some of the most memorable moving images of that decade. Thousands of young viewers were inspired to pick up drumsticks and Phil Collins records thanks to that gorilla--the most influential member of his species pre-Harambe.

Other adverts gave us popular catchphrases that have entered common parlance, such as "Just Do It" from Nike, "Every Little Helps" from Tesco and "Calm Down, Dear" from... Esure? As proven by that skillful use of punctuation, some adverts actually become more famous than the companies and products they are promoting.

Mentioning the Esure ad is another skillful move, as the "Calm Down, Dear" campaign was helmed by film director Michael Winner. And Winner is not the only director to achieve victory in corporate video.

Are advert-makers artists?

Jonathan Glazer's 2013 indie film Under the Skin received wide acclaim serious film critics, but he made his first mark on popular culture with a series of adverts for Guinness, including the black and white one with the surfers, which is certainly po-faced and self-important enough to pass as modern art.

Other acclaimed directors who created advertisements include David Lynch, David Fincher, and many people who are not named David. Adverts clearly have a large impact on our culture, whether it is catchphrases entering common parlance or mascots entering common nuisance. And with these artistic adverts satisfying the TV viewer's need for high culture, we may have to admit that TV commercials do count as part of our cultural heritage.

Unlike books, films, music and other art forms we hold dear, advertisements are created explicitly to manipulate an audience into spending money. That in itself seems to compromise their artistic value.

Whether or not advertising is 'pure' art is up for question, but it is not for us Huff Po hipsters to decide whether something is or is not part of our cultural canon. The huge expectation, viewership and response to this year's crop of Christmas adverts shows us this. The proof is in the (Christmas) pudding. If you don't like it, all I can say is: "Calm down, dear."

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