Yeah, yeah, it’s still only November. But Christmas is coming and that means major retailers spending small fortunes on commercials that have become a story in themselves.
We’re approaching the time of year where the days are short, the weather grim, and workmates of the Western world begrudgingly exchange gifts of carefully controlled value. Many cultures have developed a justification for some midwinter festival. However, there’s a series of expectations accompanying the UK’s current reimplementation of Saturnalia (Christmas to you), which show up quite conspicuously in the televised commercial blandishments of the season.
It’s almost become competitive, with the top brands in British retail assembling each year for an annual festive commercial competition. So, let’s arm ourselves with a checklist of the required moves and points for level of difficulty and artistic expression, then while away a few minutes admiring actors smiling through the pain of winterwear in the late summer weeks when this was all probably shot.
Early runners and riders
Let’s start with this year’s offering from department store chain Marks and Spencer, which ably checks off several mandatory elements with startling efficiency. The opening cuts are filled with a perfect example of the Inside-to-Outside Window, contrasting a room lit in warm, friendly tones against a window onto an exterior snowscape that looks more picturesque than it’d probably feel in person. This sort of setup makes people set the white balance to 4200K and mix color temperatures freely for a not-overpowering degree of color contrast. Keen to demonstrate its proficiency, the company moves on quickly to a Festive Illumination Defocus, with so many points of light scattered through backgrounds that the piece could be mistaken for a trade-show lens demo.
The piece hurries to include Fairy Dust and an apparently effortless Outside-in Window, where the warmth and coolness are swapped for an exterior shot. That same setup reinforces its mastery of the Festive Defocus with a combination of shallow focus and wide angle, something several of this year’s competitors leverage full-frame sensors to achieve. If ever there was a year that really big chips became a big deal in seasonal advertising, it’s 2023. M&S stumbles slightly by overlooking the carefully-cast Kid in Woollen Hat but recovers those points with a superb pair of talking mittens (voiced by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, for some reason) and an execution of Flambe’d Pudding with Additional Fairy Dust, which drew a smattering of polite applause from the judges.
Pudding is an advanced element, liked by judges for the crafty way the burning spirits bring some blue color contrast back into an otherwise uniformly warm frame. Nobody ever seems to query why all of these traditional lunches seem to be happening at dusk, although, to be fair, dusk is only at about 3 pm in London this time of year.
Still, we have to move on to supermarket chain Morrisons for a really first-class presentation of the classic Family Dinnertable, prefaced nicely with a scene of someone preparing enough carrots and sprouts to feed everyone living on the carefully average cul-de-sac outside the window. The company gives us a quick one-two with a combination of Fluffy Creature in the same frame as a nicely executed Outside-in Window but waits until the last few cuts to provide us with its Family Dinnertable, with a classic warm toplight that somehow illuminates even the upper surfaces of the pendant lights which seem to be illuminating the scene. Morrisons reaches for cinema with a cinemascope-style frame, though risks losing points for having chosen spherical lenses.
By now, even the least-practiced viewer will be quick to recognize the fundamentals in a capable entry from pharmacy chain Boots. Hat Kid appears in the opening shot and is joined by some nicely executed Festive Defocus a couple of cuts later; it’s a basic trick, perhaps, but spectators like to see attention being paid to the fundamentals of the sport. Meanwhile, those golden spheres of light remind us that Boots is another competitor that has composed its frames for a cinemascope-style presentation without using cinemascope-style lenses.
Although several subsequent setups are car interiors, partial credit is earned for a couple of Inside-out Windows. Soon, though, the company pulls off a spectacular instance of an element we haven’t seen so far in this year’s competition: the Cosy Cabin, nestled in a cool, blue, wintry snowscape with amber light streaming from its windows. After some conferring, judges agreed that those patches of light on the ground outside the building probably were done in Resolve but that the rules do not expressly forbid it.
Discount retailer Lidl goes all in for Fluffy Creature. However, some observers have pointed out that it seems to take place in a version of New York that’s also Paris, London, Berlin, and Prague, perhaps the better to amortize production costs across several territories. The company’s performance dares to neglect several key elements – the Kid lacks a Hat, and most of the decorative lights are lamentably sharply focused. Still, Lidl recovers some ground with an advanced variation on the Outside-in Window, framing an otherwise conventional setup with warm-tinted foreground elements in a setup that pundits are already calling the Inside-Outside-Inside Raccoon Burrow. Strangely, the piece seems to have been shot in true anamorphic but is presented in a 16:9 frame. It ends on a very strong Family Dinnertable with extra points for some particularly obvious toplighting of the top lights.
A strong field rounds out with the entry from Sainsbury's, which capably contrasts the workaday environment of a grocery store with perhaps one of the best Cosy Cabins in competition, albeit in a shot that looks like it never existed outside of an Adobe product. Family Dinnertable and Festive Defocus appear about halfway through in an advanced combination topped off with an Inside-out Window. It’s perhaps at this point that we realize the company has chosen not only to shoot anamorphic but also to retain the classic aspect ratio. Still, we’re quickly distracted from that by an advanced variation some analysts refer to as the Vehicular Cosy Cabin. It somehow implies that the privations of driving a small truck down an even smaller country lane in a snowstorm at night are more than offset by the knowledge of just how much seasonal cheer has been stacked in the payload area.
The history of competitive festive promotion more or less begins with Coca-Cola, possibly the only contestant who can claim to have had a meaningful impact on the sort of iconography that forms the foundation of the sport. The company’s entry seems determined to wow the crowd early, with Fairy Dust in the opening frame, moving quickly on to Festive Defocus, a couple of flawlessly executed Outside-in and Inside-out Windows, and a Family Dinnertable which can hardly receive anything but full marks. The lack of a Hat Kid is offset by the presence of some adults in cold-weather headgear building a snowman, and the overall effect is so complete that it seems downright curmudgeonly to complain about the spherical photography cropped to a cinemascope aspect.
And Amazon? Well, Hat Kid appears in a flashback, but there’s only some very minor Festive Defocus and a squandered opportunity for an Inside-out Window, which almost suggests the company hasn’t read the rules. Still, it’s the only entry cropped to a 2:1 aspect ratio, sometimes called Univisium after Vittorio Storaro’s initiative, which suggests someone was paying attention to something.
Late entry for an overwhelming favorite
The competition rounds out with what’s probably the founder competitor: upmarket department store John Lewis has been a reliably innovative contestant for years, with recent entries featuring an inexperienced skateboarder, an alien landing (with seriously interesting anamorphics) and some noticeably bare-headed stop-motion kids [Wot? No Edgar, the over-excitable dragon? Ed]. The latter typifies the company’s approach, which has historically relied on innovation more than mastery of the fundamentals, and this year’s entry is no exception.
Featuring another hatless youngster, the company’s 2023 ad titled Snapper: The Perfect Tree risks omitting any overt seasonal indications during the first few cuts in favor of a longer narrative build-up, although there’s an acceptable Family Dinnertable. Once the soft-focus fairy lights turn up, the Kid gains a Hat that will likely be referred to for years to come as a perfect example of the genre.
There’s even a behind-the-scenes documentary that shows the degree of seriousness with which this thing is regarded in its native land– and yes, the rest of the crew are occupying a snow scene in T-shirts. Nice Scorpio head, too.