I am someone who goes big during the festive season. Despite my Hindu heritage, I’m already counting down the weeks until I hear the first Christmas song on the radio and see the first Christmas ad appear on my TV screen. Yet while I personally may not be able to hold my excitement, I’ve noted how in recent years, Christmas ads have become hotbeds for outrage around diversity and representation.
A YouGov survey earlier this year found that nearly half of viewers believe ethnic minorities and LGBT+ communities are overrepresented on television. We saw this outrage in action as online trolls deemed Sainsbury’s "Gravy song" and John Lewis’ "Unexpected guest" as "woke" for starring black families.
Through our work with agencies and brands as an inclusion consultancy, we witness first-hand the concerns of creatives navigating inclusive campaigns, while being fearful of an anti-woke backlash. Research by System1 shows that ads featuring "diversity" are more effective than the average ad; resonating deeper with the community represented, and also the public at large. But this doesn’t mean the route to our heartstrings this Christmas season can be reached simply by having a diverse cast.
As we wrap up summer and set our sights on the festive season, here are five ways to avoid sleepwalking into Christmas advertising in the "anti-woke" climate.
1. Don’t recreate the wheel
Nearly 80% of people globally say that it isn't enough to have people of various ethnicities, backgrounds and appearances in advertising but that they expect companies to do a better job at capturing people's true lifestyles and cultures. Providing underrepresented communities with subtle surprises and representation they will appreciate can help brands move from perceived tokenism to authentic inclusion.
There are beautiful examples of these in some of last year’s supermarket ads. This was seen in Tesco’s "Christmas party" campaign (on which The Unmistakables consulted), which features a same-sex couple and their children answering the door to carollers. It didn’t feel forced, it wasn’t even that obvious – more a case of "if you know, you know". The same goes for Asda’s "Have your Elf a merry Christmas", which featured a younger woman in a mobility scooter in-store and a young woman in a wheelchair in the outdoor choir. Both were authentic and credible to the story and, I would hope, helped people from disabled communities to feel seen.
2. Beware of in-groups and out-groups
That said, there are some "if you know, you know" references that won’t always land well depending on who created those references, why they created them and at whose "expense". As an inclusion consultant on campaigns, I witness first-hand how "group think" plays out, resulting in work that has been created by like-minded individuals for like-minded individuals.
The scene in the Lidl ad featuring the bear on a private jet surrounded by girls in short dresses didn’t particularly feel necessary for the storyline to demonstrate the "bear gone bad" headline. I can’t help but wonder if this could be attributed to "in-group bias" and that it was a bit of an in-joke among the creatives who wrote it. As someone not part of that group, it felt to me that it veered into using tropes and stereotypes to land a point that could have been made in so many different ways.
3. Use nostalgia wisely
Nostalgia often rears its head when we think about Christmas, which makes sense given research indicates that nearly half of consumers want to see Christmas advertising that reminds them of "better times". This requires a level of cultural awareness of what can be celebrated from the past and what should be left alone. in 2022 there were a couple of "new traditional" Christmas movies visually referenced: Home Alone in Aldi and Elf in Asda. This was great, because many people (particularly parents doing the big "Christmas shop") will relate to these in some way and crucially neither film carries any culturally problematic or insensitive references.
Another approach is setting stories very clearly in the past, as Sainsbury’s did with its mediaeval "far, far away land" in "Once upon a pud". From Bridgerton to Downton Abbey, we’ve seen the backlash that can spark when people of colour are cast in period pieces. However, Sainsbury’s succeeded in keeping it light-hearted and fun (evidently, it was not to be taken too seriously and the use of an instrumental version of Teenage Dirtbag added to the humour). The key here is knowing when you do and don’t need to feature an authentic representation of the past. In this particular case, it wasn’t necessary for the storyline or setting and instead, it seemed the imagination was allowed to run riot to amplify the frivolity of it all.
4. Sensitively challenge the status quo
Subverting expectations is a great way to get people’s attention. The difficulty in doing this is finding the line between creating work that "challenges" people and creating work that offends people.
John Lewis’ "The beginner" was heartwarming in that it took more than a performative look outside the traditional 2.4 family to focus on a story about a couple preparing for the arrival of their foster child at Christmas, with a reference to children in the care system. This worked really well in challenging people’s perceptions of what a "family Christmas" is while raising much-needed awareness of an important issue. The focus on inclusion here certainly went beyond surface representation.
5. Stay close to the current climate
With almost two-thirds of UK adults planning to cut back their Christmas spending this year, brands have to be mindful that we are heading into our second cost-of-living Christmas. Many families across the country will be struggling with paying mortgages and heating bills while also trying to meet expectations about entertaining people. The M&S ad featuring a gargantuan Christmas spread was questionable last year and would almost certainly land badly this year.
This season’s ads need to be conscious of overconsumption, not only to be mindful of waste but to be inclusive of a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds. This means diving deeper than casting to reflect and embrace authentically the diverse lived experiences of the time. Ultimately most consumers simply wish their Christmas comms to be "festive", allowing brands to focus on unwrapping the true spirit of the season – celebrating joy, humanity and togetherness in a way that truly reaches everyone.
This article was written by Shilpa Saul, inclusive communications director at The Unmistakables, and originally appeared in Campaign on 31 August 2023.