By Lewis Davis and Rachel Hedger, second year Sociology students.
With John Lewis setting the precedent for Christmas adverts over the preceding years, you may well have had high hopes for this year’s festive flurry hitting your screens (and we don’t mean snow on your windscreen!). But after 2016 proved itself to be a pretty miserable year – Bowie, Wood, Rickman, Wogan (Brexit and Trump, too!) – the big businesses thought we deserved to be cheered up and these ads are definitely “more in tune with the Christmas the nation wants and needs to have in 2016” (Marketing Week, 2016). What they didn’t expect, however, was how happy their adverts would make us sociologists; adverts featuring prominent characters from minority ethnic backgrounds, empowered women and same-sex couples – bringing to the forefront traditionally marginalised groups. Not only this, but they focus on the feeling of Christmastime rather than turning this holiday into a commercial opportunity! (However, it can be argued they are buying our custom by creating this positive feeling inside us…)
Let’s take John Lewis (John Lewis, 2016) – the most eagerly anticipated advert every year! Whilst Buster the Boxer dog may have taken prime position, leaping to our attention, we couldn’t help but notice the inclusion of a Black family as the protagonists. You may be wondering why we’ve chosen to highlight this as important, but the sad truth of the matter is we simply just don’t see Black people taking on prominent roles on television, especially in positive ways. Black families are often presented as “lower class and rather poorly dressed” (Merritt and Stroman, 1993, p. 494) but here we see a more middle class representation, portraying the joy of Christmas to an innocent child. In a country where racism has been illegal for over 50 years, we continue to see people from ethnic minorities discriminated against. Contrastingly, John Lewis offers an alternative view by displaying a Black family who can afford to shop for “upmarket brands” (Financial Times, 2009). Of course, we could reflect on this as widening the capitalist net, in that John Lewis are appealing to more people by featuring a Black family. Furthermore, “almost half the black children in Britain are being raised by single parents” (Metro, 2007), but John Lewis refuses to bow down to stereotypes, by conveying a ‘conventional’ nuclear family (annoyingly reiterating heteronormativity, but at least we’ve smashed one stereotype!).
The next stop for the ‘Sociological Santas’ is Sainsbury’s (Sainsbury’s, 2016), who have made their way onto this year’s nice list! With James Corden providing the feel good theme song; spirits (and not just your mulled wine!) have been lifted as Dave escapes the alienation of modern day capitalism. With the overall message emphasising the importance of family and the time spent together, Sainsbury’s have gone all out on the diversity front, featuring a mixed-race couple and their children (or it could be inferred that they are a reconstituted family) and a same-sex couple and their child. Again, it could be questioned why we are making such a fuss over a prominent same-sex couple, but “Lesbians and gay men are usually ignored; but when [they] do appear, it is in narrowly, negatively stereotyped roles” (Gross, 2002, p. 91). However, the happy smiles and a laughing child portray a same-sex couple in a positive light, attempting to normalise homosexuality in the media.
This emphasis on the joy of Christmas chimes well with Dave’s struggle to balance his hectic work life, everyday errands and spending time with his family. Marx’s idea of alienation (Marx and Engels, 2014) of the worker is blindingly obvious here, with Dave appearing as just another worker amongst many, dealing with the many negative aspects of working in industry – meetings, stress and running around after other people. Despite this, Dave comes to the realisation that if there were more of him he would be able to do the thing he wants to the most – spend time with his family. This subtle dig at capitalism and the inability to spend quality time with your family certainly doesn’t go unnoticed! (But once again, our affection is being bought by giving the impression that Sainsbury’s recognise the perils of capitalism, despite operating successfully in the UK’s capitalist market.)
Whilst the number one woman at Christmas has traditionally been Mary, Marks and Spencer (M&S, 2016) have given her competition in the way of Mrs Claus. As Father Christmas leaves for work on Christmas Eve to fulfil his role as the breadwinner, Mrs Claus strikes into action and takes it upon herself to accomplish Jake’s Christmas wish for his sister Anna to get new shoes. Whilst M&S doesn’t stray too far from its target market with a white, middle class woman (the M&S woman (BBC News, 2016)), the advert depicts an empowered woman who rejects the stereotype of a stay-at-home housewife. Empowered women are independent, individual, confident/assertive, and value their own qualities and abilities (Brinkman, et al, 2015), which are epitomised in Mrs Claus.
Rather than relying on old fashioned reindeer, Mrs Claus uses her own skill to fly a helicopter and jests at the outdated method of entering homes (down the chimney!). Whilst M&S utilises a fictional manifestation of an empowered woman, Boots (Boots, 2016) have taken it one step further and used Christmas as an opportunity to celebrate real heroes. The inclusion of a carer, firefighter, paramedic, nurse and doctor highlights the unspoken saviours of Christmas as “half a million women work on Christmas day”, thus Boots chose to pamper these women to offer them some respite from their hours of hard graft. Boots celebrates the diversion from traditional gender norms by portraying these women as tough, determined and proactive.
While these adverts have given us the opportunity to reflect on a tough year, it’s time for us all to be a little more like the Waitrose Robin (Waitrose, 2016), and follow the smell of sweet minced pies back home to our loved ones, because in the words of Coca-Cola – “the holidays are coming!” (Coca-Cola, 2014).
BBC News (2016) ‘Who is “Mrs M&S”?’, Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36380151 (Accessed: 30 November)
Boots UK (2016) #BootsChristmas TV advert 2016 – the gift of beauty. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zWgNOcg2wg (Accessed: 30 November 2016)
Brinkman, B. G., Khan, A., Jedinak, A. and Vetere, L. (2015) ‘College Women’s Reflections on Media Representations of Empowerment’, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4(1), pp. 2-17
Coca-Cola (2014) Holidays are Coming! The classic Christmas advert from Coca-Cola. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gMjPezr8TY (Accessed: 30 November 2016)
Financial Times (2009) ‘John Lewis targets upmarket fashion market.’ Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/5e76d41a-9ec7-11de-8013-00144feabdc0 (Accessed: 30 November 2016)
Gross, L. (2002) ‘Minorities, majorities and the media’, in Curran, J. and Liebes, T. (ed.) Media, Ritual and Identity, UK: Routledge, pp. 87-102
John Lewis (2016) John Lewis Christmas Advert 2016 – #BusterTheBoxer, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sr6lr_VRsEo (Accessed: 30 November 2016)
M&S (2016) M&S Christmas Ad: Christmas with love from Mrs Claus, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5QPXhStb5I&feature=youtu.be (Accessed: 30 November 2016)
Marketing Week (2016) ‘The John Lewis Christmas ad: Marketers react.’ Available at: https://www.marketingweek.com/2016/11/10/john-lewis-christmas-ad-marketers-react/ (Accessed: 30 November 2016
Marx, K and Engels, F. (2014) The Communist Manifesto. New York: Freeland Press
Merritt, B. and Stroman, C. A. (1993) ‘Black Family Imagery and Interactions on Television.’ Journal of Black Studies, 23(4), pp. 492-499
Metro (2007) ‘Race Divide on Single Parents.’ Available at: http://metro.co.uk/2007/04/10/race-divide-on-single-parents-251523/ (Accessed: 30 November 2016)
Sainsbury’s (2016) Sainsbury’s OFFICIAL Christmas advert 2016 -The Greatest Gift. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bq5SGSCZe4E (Accessed: 30 November 2016)
Waitrose (2016) Waitrose Christmas TV ad 2016 | #HomeForChristmas. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtKYdG9r0Pk (Accessed: 30 November 2016)