When I was a child, the definite marker of the start of the festive season was spotting the Coca-Cola Christmas advert on TV. I vividly remember running around our living room in my pyjamas shrieking ‘Holidays are Coming’ at the top of my little lungs, much to my parents utter dismay – especially as the airing of the advert seemed to get earlier and earlier every year. As a child of the early 90s, seeing those illuminated red Christmas trucks still gives me a feeling of nostalgia and butterfly-excitement to this day.
Over the past few decades Christmas adverts seem to have become something of a cultural staple. Each year, the nation’s biggest brands battle it out to win the heart of the British public by introducing a host of lovable characters and spreading feel-good messages to give us all the warm and fuzzies.
This year is no exception. In fact, it feels to me that there are even more Christmas ads than ever before (although I’m afraid I haven’t crunched the numbers on that). What is it about Christmas adverts that the general public love so much? And what does this cultural phenomenon tell us about who we are and the role of advertising in our lives?
To be treated as citizens not consumers
Although Christmas adverts are designed to boost brand recognition or increase sales in the lead up to the biggest consumer holiday of the year, the messages perpetuated in Christmas ads do tend to be rather different from the messages we receive for much of the rest of the year. Instead of receiving near constant reminders to buy this, that or the other in order to transform our lives for the better, Christmas ads tend to invoke values of connection, community and kindness.
This year’s much-anticipated John Lewis advert sees a young boy meet a young alien girl who has crash-landed on planet earth. They form a friendship despite intergalactic differences and he shares his Christmas traditions with her. At no point in the advert do you get a sense of what John Lewis sells. In fact, as one witty journalist for The Guardian writes, “if you showed the advert to someone who didn’t know what John Lewis was, they would be forced to assume it was some sort of spaceship repair company”. Instead of selling you stuff, John Lewis (in this advert at least) seems to be encouraging you to remember the importance of togetherness.
Or take my personal favourite from this year – Aldi’s advert which retells the Dickens classic, The Christmas Carol, with a cast of superbly named characters including Kevin the Carrot, Ebanana Scrooge and Marcus Radishford (voiced by the real Marcus Rashford). This advert, produced in partnership with Barnardos, ends with the message that “for you to be happy you need to be kind”. This is far removed from the tone of adverts we usually find ourselves bombarded with, telling us that to be happy we need to be thinner, richer and more popular.
It makes me wonder if one of the reasons Christmas ads are so widely anticipated is that, for a brief moment, the messages we receive via advertising treat us as citizens and not solely consumers. They publicly champion some of our deepest and most sacred motivations – types of intrinsic values that research has shown the majority of us prioritise.
Looking back a mere few weeks to messages being pushed out on the lead up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday demonstrates that for most of the year advertising is largely designed to provoke our more extrinsic motivations – things like wealth, success and concern for our public image – in order to get us to part with our money. Take for example, this advert released by John Lewis, the creator of some of the nation’s favourite feel-good Christmas ads, designed to prime our more extrinsic values by reference to pay day and the price of various consumer items; or this advert, by Coca-Cola, engaging the extrinsic value of social recognition.
For the majority of the year we are swimming in adverts that normalise and promote a whole host of behaviours, attitudes and values, which are not only detrimental to our personal wellbeing, but also exacerbate the social and environmental problems we face globally. Decades of social psychological research has shown that by prioritising the types of extrinsic, materialistic values promoted through advertising, people become less likely to show support for pro-social or pro-environmental actions and policies. Indeed, the pervasiveness of such advertising in our lives has a strengthening effect, meaning that over time we are likely to attach greater importance to the values being promoted.
Brands that spend time, money and creative energy on producing adverts for the Christmas season that speak to people’s commitment to intrinsic values, actively undermine these same values the rest of the year, making it harder and harder for people to exercise values such as kindness, connection and equality.
Intrinsic values aren’t just for Christmas
At the Common Cause Foundation we advocate that organisations committed to social and environmental change should reflect on what values they are strengthening in wider culture through their communications and work. If you’re an advertising agency, you may decide that you want to help promote environmentally-friendly products for example, or if you’re an environmental NGO you may decide you want to promote increased take up of environmentally-friendly behaviours. Great. But, how you do this is vital according to a tonne of social psychological research.
In order to build greater public demand for social and environmental change we know we need to give people opportunities to engage and exercise their intrinsic values and, importantly, avoid engaging their extrinsic values. This is because these two sets of values work in tension with each other. In other words it is very difficult for us to prioritise values in one group whilst simultaneously prioritising values in the other group. Organisations may very well be committed to reducing their carbon footprint, or helping to promote environmentally sustainable behaviours through their work, but if they do this whilst also invoking extrinsic values in their audiences they are undermining the necessary cultural conditions required for success.
So what if the advertising industry could be persuaded to use messages of kindness and community all year round and not just at Christmas? It might be thought that if the big brands changed the may they message, engaging intrinsic values in their communications and avoiding extrinsic ones, we would see a shift towards more intrinsic behaviours and ideals. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily that simple.
Research is conspicuously lacking, but advertising that appeals to intrinsic values could do more harm than good, by reinforcing the idea that through buying a particular product or service intrinsic values can be meaningfully pursued. If, upon purchasing a product, someone finds that it doesn’t really facilitate their expression of intrinsic values, then this may erode their subsequent commitment to these values in the long term.
This outcome may be further intensified if the values are seemingly primed by a brand for self-interested purposes, such as reputation management or increased sales. An example of an advert explicitly utilising intrinsic values to its own ends is perhaps this year’s Amazon Christmas advert, which seems to imply that the intrinsic values of kindness, friendship and connection can be realised through buying gifts for others on the Amazon app. I don’t think it would take much for someone with even a basic understanding of how Amazon works to feel that these intrinsic values are being instrumentalized by the organisation in order to increase their profits. If Amazon truly prioritised intrinsic values, as suggested in its Christmas ad, surely it would change its internal practices that see so many of its workers underpaid and overworked, or the very fact it operates a mammoth enterprise dedicated to escalating consumerism at the cost of the health of our planet.
Although more research is necessary, at the moment it would appear that regardless of the values that advertising invokes in its audience through its choice of words and imagery, it is likely to still shift us extrinsically. Professor Tim Kasser has shown that simply just seeing images of desirable consumer items shifts us towards prioritising our extrinsic values and deprioritising the intrinsic values necessary to building greater public demand for social and environmental change.
So, where does this leave us? What do Christmas adverts help us to understand about the ways to engage the public in the cultural values required to build systemic and durable solutions to social and environmental challenges?
The upshot of all this is that, on the basis of current research, it seems difficult to identify any ‘positive’ adverts – regardless of the values they engage (or how much we loved them as kids!). The industry needs to work much harder to demonstrate that it has any social utility at a time when we are confronted with such profound social and environmental challenges – many of which can be traced to over-consumption. It would seem that we don’t just need adverts with different, more intrinsically-primed messages, but substantially less adverts altogether. While this might be a difficult conclusion for many in the industry to accept, it could at least prompt young creative people to think twice before joining an industry that, as Tim Jackson says, exists to ensure that “[p]eople are persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about.”
Having said that, there may be useful insights for others who are passionate about social and environmental change to take away from this. The British public’s love for Christmas ads demonstrates that they are open to communications which tap into their intrinsic values. NGOs and other cultural institutions, who have legitimate cause to invoke these values, can take courage from this and feel emboldened to move away from references to wealth, success and public image as a means to engage the public in their cause. Let this be a prompt for those seeking change to connect their issues with the intrinsic values that we know so many people hold dear, at Christmas and year round.