Sadverts play on our deepest fears. (John Lewis/YouTube)

December 11, 2023   5 mins

Melting snowmen. Sad ballads. Lonely children. These are the staples of the inescapable “sadvertising” that has become as much a part of Christmas as the Radio Times double issue used to be. But something feels different this year. If you resist skipping them, you will find that the biggest brands’ latest Christmas ads are either daft or a bit weird: singing oven gloves for Morrisons and a boy’s uneasy friendship with a sentient Venus flytrap for John Lewis. These odd little skits are a return to form for British advertising, which never aimed to make the consumer cry. So, why did schmaltzy sadvertising catch on in the first place? 

Given its predominance in recent years, it’s easy to forget that the phenomenon is a relatively recent one. It was in November 2011 that John Lewis first sucker-punched the UK public with a Christmas ad so obscenely emotional that it would change the tone of festive ads for a generation. We saw a small boy impatient for Christmas morning: when the crack of dawn arrives, he leaps out of bed, runs past the stack of presents in his room and bursts in on his mum and dad with the gift he has bought for them all by himself. There was barely a dry eye left in the country.

It was grand and glossy — and almost shocking in its attempts to pull on the nation’s heartstrings. British ads had usually aimed to be funny; like the society they spoke to, they preferred to hide their feelings behind gags and irony rather than hang them all out for the neighbours to see. But just over a decade ago, as the nation was first acclimatising to the sour taste of austerity, it was as if we were all ready for something brazenly sweet. By 2012, every other brand was employing the same formula: tear-jerking tales of Yuletide loneliness, love and redemption, all set to whimsical, ghostly cover versions of classic pop ballads. 

This year’s offerings look more like the festive ads of the Eighties, which helped shape Generation X’s childhood perception of Christmas. Watching them now on YouTube reminds me of an altogether less serious time, in which The Goodies and Windsor Davies dressed up as Santa and hawked discount blank cassettes from Woolies; in which groups of lads got trollied on cans of Harp and chatted up Linda Lussadi at the Christmas party. And the slogans: so transactional, so knockabout, so pleasingly guileless: “For Christmas, Woolworths is right up your street!” “Can you imagine Christmas without a trip to Boots?” 

These were the days when British advertising was regarded as the best in the world: it was funny, earthy and colloquial. Its so-called “golden age” had been fostered by an eclectic generation of young creatives, many of whom would go onto bigger and better things: Ridley and Tony Scott, David Puttnam and the Saatchi brothers among them. From “Heineken Refreshes The Parts Other Beers Can’t Reach” to “Tell Them About The Honey Mummy”, the ads were extremely memorable and didn’t ever insult the audience by taking themselves too seriously. The prevailing attitude of the British adman was: if you’re going to push yourself into someone’s living room uninvited, you might as well do it with a bit of charm and good humour. To shamelessly pull at the heart strings was thought of as manipulative and altogether American

There were some exceptions. The Eighties Yellow Pages campaign, featuring elderly fly fisherman J.R. Hartley seeking out his long-lost magnum opus, was a rare tearjerker that many ad people of the time found cringeworthy. But it was a success for the brand, and people have remembered it ever since. Written by British adman David Abbot, it was directed by the American Bob Brooks who said: “When I first came to the UK, I found that the ads were funny but there was a reluctance to become too emotional — the Yellow Pages ads showed there’s nothing wrong with sentiment. Why do you think there are so many dogs and babies in commercials? Because the consumer responds to it!” 

In the early years of the 21st century, this idea was fully embraced by the British ad industry, by now unrecognisable from its glory days: gone are the misfits and mavericks who had once dominated the creative departments. In the last couple of decades, advertising has been created via corporate processes overseen by middle-class marketing graduates. Ads have become formulaic, and humour is widely mistrusted as a selling device — not least because it is harder to translate across the international markets that big brands now traverse. Emotions are more universal, more adaptable, and less dependent on dialogue. It’s an approach that generally makes for boring and forgettable adverts — but which comes into its own around Christmas. People are more sentimental at this time of year, yes, but “sadvertising” doesn’t just pull on the heartstrings. It’s also designed to guilt-trip parents, playing into their intense desire to give their kids the perfect Christmas.

Does making us feel bad actually translate into commercial benefit for the advertiser? “If you’re anything other than the market leader, then these sorts of ads don’t help you,” says legendary adman Dave Trott. “They just remind people that it’s Christmas and they need to buy presents. And then they all go on Amazon to buy them.” His advice is this: “Supermarkets and stores need to say more than Christmas is great. They need to specify why you should do your Christmas shopping with them.”

This might have been the realisation that John Lewis came to before conceiving this year’s ad. It switched ad agencies for the first time in over a decade for the 2023 campaign, and dropped the “sadvertising” approach that it had once pioneered. Made by Saatchi & Saatchi, the new ad is a strange, entertaining little film whose main character is a giant, anthropomorphic Venus flytrap. With shades of ET, it feels like a significant gear change: less glum and more fun. “People are over having their heartstrings pulled by Christmas ads,” says Ben Mooge, Executive Creative Director of Publicis, the group who own Saatchis. “Joy, comedy and celebration is the new thing.” Maybe the British public, collectively traumatised by a succession of national crises, are just fed up of being made to feel bad. And perhaps brands have come to realise that it’s not their place to lecture the consumer.

Plus, it’s actually helping sell stuff. John Lewis sources tell me sales of Venus flytraps have already increased by 600%. Whereas in the wake of last year’s John Lewis ad — centred on a middle-aged dad learning to skateboard in order to bond with his new foster son — consumers who turned up at John Lewis looking to purchase a skateboard themselves were disappointed to find that the stores didn’t actually stock them. 

But while the big brands might have ditched sadvertising this year, the strategy is still working for some. Charlie’s Bar — a small pub in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland — produced a sadvertisement for just £700 this year, which promptly went viral. It features an elderly man being shunned by passersby in the street before arriving at Charlie’s, ordering a pint of stout, and being approached by a dog, whose owners eventually join him for a chat. The ad was viewed over 1.5 million times on social media within its first week. This is what John Lewis knew all along: sadvertising works best when it taps into our deepest fears. And there’s nothing we fear more than being alone.

Sam Delaney is an author, broadcaster and journalist based in London.