In a year like no other, just what are the narratives that are shaping the festive commercial messaging in 2020?

In the weeks leading up to the big day, brands have been delivering their annual Christmas adverts to promote their offerings and compete for the place of the best ad of the season.

Big-hitters John Lewis and Coca-Cola have consistently delivered creative and well-received adverts every year, with supermarket retailers like Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Aldi working hard to keep up. Each brand attempts to put out a unique narrative that fits their brand, ranging from humorous and engaging content to classic tear-jerkers.

However, with the events of 2020, many brands have battled with what consumers want. For brands to be relatable, it’s hard to simply put aside the happenings of the past year, but some might prefer to put the pandemic out of their mind and enjoy the season as normally as possible.

We take a look at how brands have taken a unique approach to Christmas 2020.

What do consumers want?

The pandemic has shaped the lives of the nation this past year, leaving no stone un-turned with who it impacts. But the question that has likely been at the forefront of brands minds while creating their ads – do people just want normality?

Apparently not. A whopping 53% of the public feel brands should acknowledge everything that’s happened, with only 25% in disagreement. Whether out of respect for those the virus has affected more severely or because people find brands to be more relatable because of it, building campaigns that in some way refer to regional and national restrictions would appear to be a positive for retailers.

Despite these figures, different brands have gone down different avenues with their marketing tactics this season.

Subtlety is key: John Lewis

The John Lewis Christmas advert is the one everyone waits for every year and it rarely disappoints. They’ve gone with their usual sweet message of love and connectivity this year, following a string of characters ranging from live-action to varying animations, each passing on small acts of kindness to another. It might not show characters self-isolating, but the ad reflects on the rise of community spirit the nation has seen in 2020.

But some slammed the ad for not being blunt enough, arguing a better reflection would have been for the characters to social distance and wear masks. But was it needed in a fantasy COVID-free world that simply nods at the nations’ good deeds? John Lewis’ customer director Claire Pointon doesn’t think so.

‘We deliberately said “let’s not take it too close to the real world.” People don’t want to look in the mirror and see what we’ve been going through.’

Sainsbury’s: Sweet and simple

Sainsbury’s took a similarly subtle approach, sharing telephone conversations between family members with the audience. Part 1, Gravy Song, mainly focusses on a comical recollection of the family’s traditional singalong for when Dad brings out his famous gravy for the annual Christmas dinner. However, the father directly refers to the restraints of 2020 by saying ‘I just really hope I can see you lot.’

Amid family laughter, the ad connects with the struggles of its audience in nine simple words. The campaign subtly reflects on modern life without letting the pandemic drive the entire narrative of the ad, striking the beautiful balance so many of us have strived for all year.

Tesco: No Naughty List

Tesco has built a reputation of connecting with its customers, and that has certainly been the case with their most recent Christmas campaign, No Naughty List. Each character shares a guilty secret that would otherwise get them on Santa’s naughty list, and each secret is in theme with the trends of this year.

One girl admits she gave her sister a bad haircut, making fun at the thousands of at-home hair-care attempts during lockdown. Several characters admit to buying too many loo rolls, like so many of us did in the early panic of 2020. A mother admits to not teaching her son physics and maths, one man worries about forgetting to sing Happy Birthday while washing his hands, and a sun-kissed Father Christmas admits to going on holiday.

Despite all these well-themed guilts, Tesco says that there is no naughty list after the year we’ve all had, perfectly using comedy with current events to connect with their audience in a fun and creative way.

Amazon: The show must go on

Like Tesco, Amazon’s 2020 Christmas ad clearly addresses the impact the past year has had on our lives, but through a theatrical and inspiring story of an aspiring ballerina.

The story follows the young ballerina as she determinedly practices for her upcoming leading role at home. Sadly, the official show is cancelled due to lockdown, and the ballerina becomes disheartened. But her sister brings the community together to give the ballerina her shining moment for an emotional finale in the street.

This community spirit reflects on how the public have come together (while not physically) this past year to make the best out of a bad situation. Not only does the young ballerina get her big moment as a dancer, her performance also brings some much-needed joy to those around her. And, much like the dramatic and awe-inspiring theme song ‘The Show Must Go On’ suggests, Christmas will go on, no matter how different it may seem to ones before.

While all these showstopping Christmas ads have made differing choices in how they connect with their audiences at the end of such a tumultuous year, they all share one thing in common – Christmas needs to be about joy, perhaps this year more than most.