Ho! Ho! Ho! From TK Maxx’s fashion-forward goat to Steve Carrell’s stressed out Santa, Laura Swinton on the Christmas ads that are embracing comedy in the year of Covid
Way back in April – April! – we spoke to creatives and strategists around the industry about the importance of comedy as people grappled with a big old pandemic. Back then, IPSOS Mori reported that viewing for comedy series had shot up 40%, and in the UK Channel 4 confirmed that comedy shows had become even more popular than usual on their platforms too.
It’s fair to say that, a couple of exceptions aside, brands largely didn’t embrace that particular note with the first few of flushes of lockdown advertising. It was understandable that jittery businesses feared coming across as flippant or complacent – but when TikTok was blowing up with DIY skits and antics there was a sense of disconnect with wider pop culture.
Now it’s Christmas though, and it seems that some marketing teams have had time to get used to the idea that what people need is a bit of a comedy break – and that the time has come to make jokes about the Covid experience itself.
Perhaps the most explicitly 2020 campaign is that for UK supermarket Tesco. The campaign, from BBH London and directed with bombastic verve by Raine Allen-Miller, announces that Tesco has abolished Santa’s naughty list. What follows is a cross section of society – including the big man himself – confessing that they’ve been less than perfect when it comes to their Covid-19 conduct. Panic buying toilet rolls, sacking off the home schooling, less than rigorous handwashing. In a year where polarising media and social media narratives have seen ‘pandemic puritans’ square off against ‘covidiots’, the campaign is grounded, human and nuanced. We’re all trying our best, but nobody’s perfect.
“The planning, writing and production of the Christmas campaign spanned early Covid, the worst of Covid, the false dawn in the summer and back to lockdown, so it was hard to know what tone would be right by the time the campaign launched. But we did know that our campaign idea was adaptable enough to flex if needed,” explains creative director Tom Drew.
Tom says the response has been ‘overwhelmingly positive’. “We hoped people would appreciate a laugh come the end of this year, but we didn’t quite realise how much,” he says. “There’s too much sadness in real life at the moment, let alone advertising. Perhaps this may signal the end of the tear-jerker era.”
Across the pond in North America, where holiday marketing tends to run sweet ‘n’ schmaltzy, there have also been some pockets of more pointed Covid comedy. Miller Lite’s campaign is a vindication and validation for those who can’t stand the forced jollity and organised fun of the office Christmas party. The eerily shot spot turns the classic work bash into a distorted diorama.
According to Ben Wolan, CCO at DDB San Francisco, who worked on the campaign together with the DDB Chicago office, the fun and honesty of the Miller Lite brand gave them space to be funny and compelled them to address Covid directly.
“Miller Lite is a brand that always wants to be a part of culture and, obviously, Covid has drastically shaped our culture. So that’s where we’re going to tell stories from as a brand when it makes sense,” he says. “Since we’re a light beer brand I think we should use a comedic lens to talk about the state of the world. While we’re using these strange times as context for our work, we’re also offering a decent amount of escapism for people experiencing the campaign. We want people to lose themselves in this absurd but relatable office party and remind people that as captivating as it is to watch this horror unfold, it’s always preferable to have some beers with your friends.”
The office party also got the comedy treatment from Gucci with a retro makeover – albeit the comedic flavour was more tastefully odd, beautiful-people-dancing-awkwardly comedy, rather than snort-eggnog-over-the-keyboard comedy.
Another big US campaign to go full tilt for Covid-19 humour is the Comcast Xfinity campaign from Goodby Silverstein & Partners. They’ve cast Office star Steve Carrell as a stress-eating Santa who is struggling to figure out how to make Christmas special in the year of Covid. His beleaguered elves, who have been adapting to video conferencing and remote working, come up with some crafty ideas. It’s very much a campaign that taps into the cosy comedy of classic festive movies, like Elf or The Santa Claus. It's ultimately a big warm hug.
According to Jim Elliott, ECD at GS&P, finding that tone was a delicate process. "We had a lot of conversations about tone. Given the dicey, touch-and-go environment we’re all navigating through at the moment, we wanted to strike the right holiday chord, for sure. And when you’re dealing with this particular Holiday narrative, there’s a danger of it becoming either too cutesy or too maudlin. At the end of the day, we wanted to achieve what pretty much all great holiday stories/films manage to achieve: Balance. A balance of humour and warmth. Laughter and gravity. With a touch of tension and suspense and, of course, magic. A story with layers of emotional resonance. We wanted it to feel not just big and cinematic but modern and relevant to what’s going on in the world right now and ultimately make people feel good."
“It’s rare to have such a special project come along,” says director Craig Gillespie. “Being able to collaborate with the agency and craft a message borne of this particular moment that captures a longing for togetherness was very gratifying. And having the opportunity to work with Steve Carell was a dream come true. He brought the heart, warmth and humour that is the magic of this spot.”
The fact that the spot directly references the coronavirus experience mirrors the history of some of our most beloved Christmas movies. So, even though the commercial is extremely 2020, Jim says that it also goes 'back to the basics of holiday storytelling and revisit a classic narrative through a present-day lens'.
Not all comedy holiday ads explicitly reference Covid-19 – though the context of the pandemic still looms large. In Australia, ALDI’s Synchronised Santas, which featured a crew of cloned Father Christmases in red leotards, urged people to ‘go full Christmas’, the implication being that they hope shoppers won’t hold back because of the pandemic. Even in the production, the fact that the Santas are all played by the same actor heightens the oddity and surrealism of the humour – and it was a very smart production move that kept the shoot Covid safe.
The campaign was devised by BMF Australia. Creative team David Fraser and Dantie van der Merwe said that the silliness and an irreverent sense of fun would help the brand stand out amidst heartfelt earnestness from competitors in the supermarket sector. Overall they say the response has been really positive, though “when you do something a bit different you’ll always get a few Christmas grinches.”
“All the work we do with ALDI Australia starts from the brand platform ‘Good Different’. Every campaign takes a distinctive, irreverent angle that other local supermarkets wouldn’t. And Christmas this year was no different,” they said. “We figured people had done enough thinking in 2020 and would appreciate some silly, blissful escapism with a few turduckens thrown in for good measure. Embracing the ridiculous and turning it up seventeen notches felt like the best way to stick out from the Christmas clutter.”
Equally, TK Maxx’s UK spot from Wieden + Kennedy – in which a grizzled old farmer explains an extravagant Christmas gift for his favourite goat with, ‘she’s had a hell of a year’ could have easily played out in a ‘normal’ year. But in 2020, that ‘hell of a year’ takes on a relatably British understatement.
The gentle humour of Microsoft’s holiday spot from McCann NY also hints at rather than explicitly mentions the pandemic – two doggy pals kept indoors and unable to play with each other and sniff butts IRL take to Microsoft Teams and Xbox games like Halo, Minecraft and Flight Simulator in order to hang out. We are all Rufus this Christmas, are we not? The spot, directed by Noam Murro, has some nice doggy gags with gags, from the dog mistaking Master Chief’s grenade throw for a game of fetch to the pooch who puts his barking pals on mute during a video call.
But while Microsoft sticks to the soft and fuzzy side of canine comedy, dog treat brand Greenies has no such compunction. Their Christmas spot from adam&eveDDB and Biscuit director Jeff Low plays on doggy obliviousness as the hero pooch blithely dismembers a snowman.
And it seems that canine comedy specifically is a bit of micro trend this year – no doubt inspired by all those who adopted dogs and puppies as their home working situation made space for a furry friend. Just Eat, starring Snoop Dogg, was one of the sole comedy spots to drop in early Covid in the UK and had huge cut through. He’s back, in puppet dog form, giving his earworm rap-jingle a festive makeover.
Then, finally, the spot that takes the prize for festive gross out humour has to Plenty - and for commitment to the comedic method. AMV BBDO’s spot depicts a gloriously messy Christmas, packed with baby puke, bloody noses and dog pee – and while even that is a bold move in 2020 when peoples’ attention to hygiene and cleanliness have been heightened, they took it an extra step further, with a shot that sees a cat having tinsel detached from its bum.
Curiously, this campaign was created by borrowing techniques directly from the world of comedy – and that competitive need to push an idea as far as it can go to really wring out the laughs can be seen on screen. “We started out with the premise that Andy Williams was lying through his teeth: Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year, it’s a test of love. Then we tested that premise to destruction.,” says AMV BBDO’s Toby Allen. “We borrowed from the comedy writing process, putting together a ‘writers’ room’ of creatives.”
So does this admittedly curated selection of comedy campaigns signal a greater openness to comedy generally? Does it suggest that 2021 might see more brands and agencies discover or rediscover their funny bones?
According to David and Dantje at BMF Australia, a lot of marketers are still pretty nervous but they’re optimistic about the New Year. “It’s a mixed bag. Feels like there’s a lot of fear in most marketing departments, and it shows in the work. Lots of campaigns with all the edges sanded off, trying to be all things to all people,” they say. “Hopefully 2021 will see more brands taking some risks to stand out and be remembered.
It’s a sentiment mirrored by Ben at DDB San Francisco – he sees a real role for funny advertising as a sort of relief valve. “It’s a tough time for comedy in advertising. A lot of brands are being extra cautious with everything that’s gone on in 2020, understandably so,” he says. “However, I think that the best comedy can come out of these dark times because tension has always created more interesting culture. Looking ahead, I think 2021 will force us into much needed comic relief, and we hope to get to be a part of creating some of it.
Jim at Goodby Silverstein & Partners reckons we've already seen some green shoots and that they're growing strong. "When Covid first hit, that’s true, comedy seemed strictly taboo. But it soon started coming back. And continues to return more and more. Because we need laughter. It’s a powerful coping mechanism. We want to be entertained. Our brains and hearts need a counterbalance to the fear and angst we’ve all been feeling. People were starting to loath advertising for a new reason: compared to the rest of the stuff they were watching, Covid-era ads were becoming downright depressing. No matter what the new year brings in terms of the pandemic, I’d like to think comedy is back and here to stay. I certainly hope it is. For me personally, laughter is like food, air and water. It’s a requirement for survival."
And for fans of funny ads, Tom at BBH reckons we can take heart from history. “Troubled times have historically been the catalyst for great strides forward in art. Let’s hope that plays out in advertising too.”