Christmas TV commercial budgets are massive, the celebrities are on hand, but what really works in the industry experts' view? Jane Hardy reports
The Christmas TV commercial is a media genre that often has more money, intense creative meetings and brow-furrowing thought thrown at it than the programmes it bisects.
This year's Guinness epic, for example, had a budget of £10m, the largest amount ever spent on a commercial, and was shot in northern Argentina, using hundreds of villagers as extras. Everything about the shoot was massive, but media opinion is divided over the result.
Sam McIlveen, the new business development director of AV Browne, Belfast, says he finds it "rather disappointing, and surprisingly similar to other ads like the Honda 'Cog' ad of 2003, where 85 car parts produced a domino effect. It doesn't really work for me".
As he notes: " Christmas advertising has become part of the Christmas conversation, with people actively looking forward to examples such as the Marks & Spencer Christmas commercial. That's the appeal which makes people buy into the various brands."
His favourite commercial of the moment is indeed the Marks & Spencer offering - "it's glamorous and belongs to that starry genre, with Next and Debenhams following suit". But, as he puts it, advertising is about " cut-through and stand-out", that is to say brand individuality, so you have to be careful if you play the ad version of follow my leader.
Keith Law, who produces and writes commercials for Citybeat and is also a comic writer and performer in Just for Laughs ("I did my ho ho hoing in the commercials last year as Santa's voice, it was a good year for men with low voices"), has also enjoyed the Marks & Spencer TV commercial. " They take the trouble to make everything look Christmassy and snowy even though we don't get cold winters anymore."
He is not convinced by the Coca Cola ad, however, in which a convoy of trucks delivers the fizzy black drink watched by a little boy in a snowbound village. " That's the one that begins The holidays are coming ... isn't it? I don't think there's anything Christmassy about HGVs and the commercial is too generic. Interestingly, Coca Cola branded Santa in the 1920s - he wore green before they put him in red."
Music is a key component of a commercial's impact and seasonal character. Keith: "The cheapest ads involve someone in the background shaking a sleigh bell, but I've made a few commercials for Citybeat this year and we have aimed for something warm, comforting and non-threatening."
As illustration, he plays a snatch of warm music sounding rather like the introduction to a 50s Christmas song delivered by one of the crooners, with schmaltzy violins in the background. "I love the orchestral, whimsical stuff. As an advertiser, you know the music is there for a reason."
Celebrities inevitably figure in the world of the TV commercial. If it's good enough for the Spice Girls, it's good enough for me, runs the thinking here. Their endorsement should shift the kind of merchandise they undoubtedly wouldn't be buying in real life. But this particular ad, made for our most profitable supermarket chain, Tesco, hasn't entirely convinced the ad-men. Sam McIlveen says the Spice Girls' Tesco commercial does not work in his view, although Tesco's previous clever slogan "Every little helps" did. He appreciates wit in commercials and singles out Dolce e Gabbana's sting in the tail offering, which starts out in standard European romantic mode, with a boy and a girl, and ends in 21st century style with " boy meets boy and girl meets girl". He observes that much of his list of top seasonal ads are produced by English and European agencies - "and Northern Ireland needs to get up there and compete". Asked about the advertising that hasn't worked, he says correctly, "The advertisements you can't remember self-evidently haven't fulfilled their brief." But he has grown rather tired of the Carphone Warehouse sponsorship of the X Factor. "There are an awful lot that aren't successful." Sam's standards are high - he looks for what he calls consistency in commercials: " I'm a great fan of advertising that is consistent, which proves a truth, and is about emotional differentiation from other brands." He cites Orange, who have promoted themselves as not just producers of mobile phones but creators of communication systems of the future as a good example.
Siobhan McKeown, director of client services at Anderson Spratt, admires the Marks & Spencer commercial for its maintenance of the company's " core values, such as quality". She observes that some companies go " off-brand" in their commercials in an attempt to impress the public. " For me, Tesco and the Spice Girls is an obvious example. It's easy to get swept up by the celebrity appeal, but in the end it's an ad about the Spice Girls, and their brand dominates the food. You just don't believe in it." By contrast, when Nicole Kidman appeared in the Nintendo DS brain train commercial, nobody initially knew it was her. "It was a shame - the product was good, there was a big budget, the personality was amazing - but the result was quite flat."
Successful TV commercials, in Siobhan's view, employ humour and music to imprint their message. "The old Guinness ads with the dancing man were good, with neat scripting which continued into the Christmas version. And the Budweiser commercials of a few years ago, which entered the language with the cry 'Whassup?' were excellent. " One slogan that definitely didn't enter popular culture was written for a brand of chewing gum. "You can just imagine the planners telling the client this would work well, but oddly 'Mastication for the nation' never quite made it ... "