LONDON – Forget Black Friday. People in Britain know the Christmas season has arrived when the big budget holiday ads start to appear.
The two- to three-minute mini-movies, which flood TV screens each November, get premiered, rated and analyzed for deeper meaning as the U.K.'s biggest retailers vie for customers with commercials that sell the idea of Christmas more than any specific object.
This year's biggest hit tells the story of a little girl who befriends an elderly man on the moon and doesn't mention the sponsor - department store John Lewis - until the final frame. Other ads feature the Muppets, accident-prone cats and Romeo Beckham leaping in the air ala Billy Elliott.
"It's almost like the starting gun at Christmas," said Daniel Best, a director at Unruly, which tracks the number of times ads are shared on social media. "We don't have Thanksgiving, so emotions are riding high on Christmas."
Eagerly awaited by consumers, retail analysts and media critics — much like Super Bowl ads in the United States — the Christmas commercials are now part of the holiday folklore in this island nation of 64 million, as much as flaming puddings, mince pies and Ebenezer Scrooge.
"They have become part of our Christmas tradition in the same way Santa Claus is," said Leslie Hallam, an expert in advertising psychology who teaches at the University of Lancaster. "We know that (stores) sell us stuff, but we choose to suspend disbelief. It's the power of Santa Claus."
British retailers first experimented with longer Christmas ads — or adverts as they are known here — in the 1970s and '80s, but they soon fell out of fashion. The shift from 30-second spots to today's visual novellas really took off after the 2008 financial crisis. Retailers trying to capture the public mood began to experiment with ads that were a bit less hard sell and a bit more about the spirit of giving, Hallam said.
One of the biggest ads last year, from the grocery chain Sainsbury's, was set in a trench during World War I and depicted the 1914 Christmas Truce, when soldiers stopped killing each other for a few hours to celebrate the holiday together in no man's land.
The ads are shared. Newspapers offer reviews. Analysts who usually spend their time making stock picks offer up scorecards on who won the Christmas ad sweepstakes.
The ads often say something about modern Britain. The John Lewis ad in particular has been the subject of much conversation this year.
Set to a cover of the Oasis song "Half The World Away," the ad features Lily, a little girl on Earth who looks through her telescope and sees an elderly man emerging from a shack on the moon. With determination, she figures out a way to connect with him. The spot ends with the tag line "Show someone they're loved this Christmas," then fades to the John Lewis logo.
The retail chain produced the ad in cooperation with the senior citizens' charity Age UK, which jumped at the chance to piggyback on the reach that comes with being part of the John Lewis Christmas commercial. The firm that produced the ad, adam&eve DDB, produced a sequel for the charity for free, which includes an appeal for donations to help the 1 million elderly people in Britain who go for a month without talking to anyone.
"I think for us it's about raising awareness of the issue of loneliness," said Marianne Hewitt, head of brand at Age UK. "It's a massive platform."
It made business sense for John Lewis to tap into changing demographics. The baby boom generation is grappling with how to care for their elders as parents live longer and are often separated from their loved ones by the demands of work and family.
And being associated with a cause can help a company distinguish itself from the broader seasonal onslaught of retail promotions and offers.
"These adverts are giving retailers a voice — the way rock stars used to have," said Richard Cope, senior trends analyst at market research firm Mintel. "They've got the public's attention. It's an event. ... It's not just an opportunity to hawk your goods. You can use it to set the agenda as well."
Not everyone loves them. Writing on the Guardian newspaper's television and radio blog, Stuart Heritage wondered whether the commercials had gone too far.
"Things desperately need to be brought back down to earth next year," he wrote. "Part of me hopes that the big 2016 John Lewis advert is just the guy from the Safestyle double glazing ads standing in a branch of John Lewis shouting 'BUY YOUR MUM A KETTLE' over and over again."
Whatever the reaction, the ads have reach, particularly thanks to social media. The Man on the Moon ad has been shared more than 1 million times, according to Unruly, the tech firm that tracks ads. This year's entry from Sainsbury's, "Mog's Christmas Calamity," a spot that tells the story of a cat whose antics cause chaos for his owner's Christmas, has some 778,000 shares. Those figures are close to the numbers of shares for all of last year for the ads of John Lewis and Sainsbury's, respectively.
That said, the Brits have competition this year from the Spaniards, whose annual lottery commercial is a similar mini-blockbuster like those of Britain.
Moving up on the shares list — to No. 3 — the Christmas lottery ad features Justino, a security guard at a mannequin factory. He works alone on the late night shift, but amuses his colleagues by leaving the mannequins in funny poses.
The three-and-a-half minute film ends with a message: There's no bigger gift than sharing.
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