Alex Gunz, Lecturer in Marketing, Alliance Manchester Business School
Oh Christmas, with your glistening food, glittering lights, and glowing high concept narrative advertisements. You truly are the Super Bowl of midwinter gravy-centered holidays. But, enquiring minds want to know, which of this year’s ad is best? We all have our favourites, naturally, but from a commercial point of view there’s a little more to it.
The way narrative adverts work, is by telling a story – big or micro, short or shortish (we’re talking adverts here) – and to draw us in. When that happens, we suspend our disbelief, and become a little emotionally invested. And when that happens, research says, we start absorbing meaning directly from the ads, without first straining them through our normal skeptical filters.
John Lewis’ ad found a new twist of their well-worn formula: meet a lovable central character, and see them thaw a melancholy mood with a surprise gift. The implicit message here links John Lewis with the emotional high of gift giving – a smart image to cultivate for a department store that sells givable things. This year’s version is told with their normal high impact production values, and without falling into the slight narrative missteps they did last year. It’s a solid job.
The Co-op follows suit with the same overall theme, but substituting the fantastical special effects with a socially conscious sub-theme. Specifically, they have THEIR unexpected gift given to THEIR nice old man by an otherwise hard-partying Asian-looking youth. Placing a young, darker skinned protagonist as the sympathetic point-of-view character is an implicit counterpoint to the current wave of headlines about young darker skinned mass-migrants. It is deliberately humanizing, which is a nice play to rebuild the Co-op’s battered image as socially caring and responsible.
Sainsbury’s ad trod a different path, gloriously animating a new tale that they somehow convinced beloved author Judith Kerr to pen, about her long-beloved character Mog the cat. The story itself may not be a classic of the Mog oeuvre, but it borrows the powerful ending from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, with its solid emotional gut punch. Importantly, the story they tell places merchandise at the emotional heart of the story’s happy resolution. For bonus points, Sainsbury’s are selling the book itself in their shops, with all profits being donated to a children’s charity. This plucks the warm feelings from the narrative world they transported you into, and extends them into an opportunity to do actual good in the real world, making the warm and fuzzy seem even deeper, and more intimately connected to buying things at Sainsbury’s. That is a stroke of masterful marketing.
As good as that is, Lidl’s effort is perhaps even cleverer. It’s less ostentatious, to be sure, but does far more narrative-persuasion leg work. Lidl is a German firm, with a German sounding name, that is rapidly becoming established in a UK market that can be somewhat ethnocentric (read: not fond of Germany). It features a quirky ‘School of Christmas’, which crackles with British sensibilities and humour, and even works in a German-speaking character as part of the general wackiness. On the one hand it’s a bauble of a story, without the emotional heft that some of the others aspire to. On the other, it catches you up in a story that works on two levels. The first is the explicit link between Lidl products, and making Christmas cheer. The second level is more subtle. They want to ward off being seen as foreign, but trying to argue this directly would only invite counter-arguing in the minds of viewers (“oh, you don’t think that’s such a big deal do you? Well let me tell you…”). Instead, they tell a story about themselves that is deeply British in sensibility and layered in cultural references (lighting Christmas pudding, fancy dress animals, AmDrams, earnest lecturers, etc). It draws viewers, imperceptibly, and without awareness, into a world that is deeply incompatible with seeing Lidl as suspiciously foreign. This clever use of narrative suggestion neatly defuses a perceived knock on Lidl, while carefully avoiding psychological defenses that might create push back. It wraps all this up with the far more clear and explicit message that shopping at Lidl is a good way of creating Christmas happiness. That is, in this psychologist’s book, a very cleverly walked tightrope.
Well played Lidl.