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'Store Wars' - The battle of the Xmas TV ads

Think of our Super Bowl ads … on steroids.
A security guard locks the door to a Sainsbury store in central London on Dec. 23, 2012.
A security guard locks the door to a Sainsbury store in central London on Dec. 23, 2012.

Think of our Super Bowl ads … on steroids. That’s the kind of effort – and money – that British brand names invest each year in their quest to make the ultimate Christmas TV commercial. Will it be the quintessentially British retailer, John Lewis, the perennial favorite? Or its main rival – Sainsbury’s - the supermarket chain? Perhaps Boots, the pharmacy? Or Waitrose, the grocery magnate? Then, there’s always Coca Cola, the American entry, a mainstay of Christmas advertising since 1931. The British ‘War of the Stores’ dates back to the 1970’s, and today’s buzz seems as much about who’ll win the coveted -- if unofficial -- title of ‘Best Christmas TV Ad’, as it is about the holiday itself. 

UK media experts largely agree that the competition this year has never been tighter. And small wonder, with multi-million dollar budgets buying the talents of Walt Disney animators, or Oscar-winning producers and directors. What were once simple ads about CD players or Christmas hams have become paeans of good feeling and – hopefully – very deep pockets. ‘’What Christmas advertising has done over the past 25 or 30 years is to find the magical moments of Christmas and really make sure they’re reflecting what it is that people feel and want to feel – and if they can sell some great products at the same time, that’s fantastic too,’’ explained Rita Clifton, a brand expert.

John Lewis has enjoyed a string of Yule Tide winners since 2011’s ‘the Long Wait’ broke ratings records on TV and on-line – the story of a young boy’s impatient anticipation of Christmas Day, not to get his presents … but to GIVE a red-wrapped gift to his parents. ‘’The Journey’’ continued the success, in 2012, about a love-struck snowman who leaves the cozy winter grounds of a country home and risks a dangerous journey to far-off London (and presumably to John Lewis) to find the perfect gifts for his snowwoman companion – a red scarf and matching gloves.

This year, ‘Monty’s Christmas’, a two-minute, one and a half million dollar tale of a little boy named Sam and his pet penguin – and pal – Monty, hits all the right notes. Mawkish, cute, a tear-jerker. And if you miss the final frames you’d never know the ad had anything to do with John Lewis. Monty – who on Christmas Day finds Mabel, a female penguin – and love - has connected with an adoring public: it’s lookalike toy – upwards of $150 – is flying off the shelves. The penguin already has tens of thousands of twitter followers. John Lewis’s on-line sales have increased TEN-fold since the ad hit the airwaves last month. ‘’Even grown men cry at that commercial and it’s easy to be cynical, on the other hand people really enjoy it, and what’s most, John Lewis is felt to be a kind and decent and good brand,’’ said Clifton.

But if ‘Monty’s Christmas’ is the sentimental favorite, Sainsbury’s entry – ‘’Christmas is for Sharing’’ – has made most of the headlines. At four minutes, more a Hollywood-style short film than a TV commercial, the mini-blockbuster is set in 1914, during the first – and only – Christmas truce along a stretch of the Western Front in Belgium. On Christmas Eve, according to true accounts, both sides - British and German – sang ‘Silent Night’ from opposing trenches and, at dawn, put down their rifles, shook hands in No Man’s Land, exchanged food and mementos, and even played soccer with a stuffed shirt that served as a ball. It was a surreal moment, which didn’t last. In the ad, Otto – a young German soldier – later finds a chocolate bar in his overcoat pocket, left secretly by Tommy, a British soldier he had met. The ad concludes with the Sainsbury’s logo and message, ‘Christmas is for Sharing’.

The ad has triggered applause, and controversy, as this is the centenary year of that horrendously brutal ‘war to end all wars’ where almost a million British troops died on the battlefield. ‘’It’s like one of those stories where you have to be so respectful because obviously a lot of people lost their lives so you owe it to them to get it right,’’ said the Sainsbury’s ad director, Ringan Ledwidge. And while it’s gone viral on social media, there have been plenty of naysayers. ‘’It ‘shamelessly exploits a moment of genuine humanity during WW1 to get us to buy more stuff,’’ tweeted Chris Hudson, a Briton. Still, most tweets were positive, and agreed with Englishman, Matt Henry: ‘’the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad should win an award. Sorry John Lewis you don’t even come close.’’

So, who is the winner this year? TubeMogul, a digital video ad platform, gave the nod to Sainsbury’s entry, based on a poll of 1,000 mostly younger adults. But ‘Monty’s Christmas’ scored highest for ‘emotional engagement’ among 1500 Britons, after a company called Realeyes measured their facial expressions as they watched the ad. Still, in the war to win eyeballs, some media pundits believe Sainsbury’s – despite the criticism surrounding its WW1 ad – has won the MORAL high ground this year: It’s donating ALL profits from the sale of its 1914-style chocolate bars – identical to the one in the Christmas ad - to the Royal British Legion, a top British military charity.

This year looks like a draw. And with the bar now placed so high, people here are scratching their heads, wondering what the retail giants will think up next.