Battle of the Christmas adverts – who has the best story?

Hari Patience-Davies considers the storytelling on offer in 2020’s festive adverts from John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Aldi.

Full disclosure here. I almost never watch live TV these days so I very rarely come across adverts in their natural setting. I’m sure I’m not the only one who lives by on demand and streaming services, but it does change the feel of the thing, searching for adverts on youtube rather than having them appear between shows.

That being said, let’s start with:

John Lewis – Give a little love

The 2020 John Lewis Christmas advert includes a circular set of mini-tales of good deeds and helpful actions, each one paying it forward, a literal representation of one good deed deserves another.

There are nine stories in all:

  1. Girl helps boy with ball in tree
  2. Boy helps melting snowman
  3. Snowman helps change tire
  4. Couple deliver food
  5. Neighbours share a really long cracker
  6. A really good joke leads to a really good haircut
  7. Putting the heart on the tree
  8. Pigeons and hedgehog
  9. Fixing the broken glasses

All are themed around kindness rather than gift giving, which is a nice message to share in 2020, when stories of community helpfulness have helped lighten a heavy year. And all are definitely stories, with clear protagonists, obstacles to overcome, action and emotional beats expertly delivered despite having no dialogue at all.

It’s a nice touch that 7 of the 9 stories are animated, each in a different style, which leaves viewers feeling surrounded by the multiple stories, like an animated embrace. It’s shows how stories don’t need to be long to be effective – including 9 (well 8, the kid putting the heart on the tree is a moment of intermission rather than a tale in itself) in 3 minutes is very efficient storytelling. Though none of the individual stories are quite as much of a tear-jerker as previous year’s adverts have been, they certainly do the job here.

Sainsbury’s – Gravy Song

In a very 2020 turn Gravy Song met with controversy, with racists on Twitter calling for a boycott because the featured family were black. Sainsbury’s standing their ground led to the almost-Christmas advert like outcome of many UK retailers uniting to #StandAgainstRacism – a true meaning of Christmas if ever there was one.

The advert itself is an interesting take – photos and videos of past celebrations fill the screen as a father and daughter tease each other over she’s looking forward to his gravy as much as her mother’s roast potatoes. It’s an exercise in nostalgia and emotional resonance, but it’s not really a story. We have characters and emotions – but the obstacles for them to overcome are implied and there’s no on-screen action.

At one point the old-camera and low-res effects are dropped from the footage, which prompted me to rewatch several times trying to determine if it was being implied they were watching the footage together rather than the clips being a representation of their memories. I’m still not sure on this.

It’s a lovely tug on the heartstrings (especially when seen with part two of the three adverts Sainsbury’s released which clearly features the first Christmas since a different family’s father has passed on), but the story of the advert itself pales in comparison to the story around the advert – though that may be a little too meta for the audience to pick up on.

Aldi – Kevin the Carrot

While Kevin the carrot showcased lovely animation and a curious mash-up of the soundtracks of Home Alone and Pirates of the Caribbean, I was a little perplexed by this one.

I’d be keen to hear the backstory for the vegetable protagonist, who parachutes to earth from some flaming wreckage (or was the chute itself in flames? I was unclear) while a smaller carrot proclaims “it must be Christmas.” Is Kevin a test pilot? A secret agent? An astronaut returning from the ISS? Also since when are shooting stars a sign of Christmas?

In a tale somewhere between Julia Donaldson’s Stick man and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Kevin must ride a hedgehog, raft a frozen river and make an ally of an NHS supporting Santa to make it back to his carrot family in time for Christmas. Which is all fair and good but the table on which his family waits is filled with normal human-sized goodies, suggesting that even when Kevin does make it home, it won’t be long before he and his carrot-brethren are chopped up and served for dinner.

Officially Aldi’s Christmas advert ticks the boxes for story – protagonist, obstacles, emotions, action – but it feels a little weak. Perhaps it’s that there’s too many pop-culture references to pick up on – even ET makes it in there – so it feels like a pale imitation of other, better, stories. Or perhaps it’s the implied fate of the vegetable peeler, pan of boiling water and roasting tray waiting just off camera for our hero that makes it hard for me to connect with him. I do love a roasted carrot with my Christmas dinner.

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