Hook Research has conducted semiotic analysis for the UK’s leading media brands, digging into the core messages of everything from political news to Saturday night entertainment. We are endlessly intrigued by the hidden meaning within content. In this blog, Lucy (one of our semiotic specialists) explores the semiotic meaning of this year’s popular Christmas adverts.
This year, you might have noticed that a lot of Christmas adverts are relying heavily on nostalgia; TESCO, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Aldi and even Argos are at it! But why all the nostalgia? And what is its purpose?
The build up to Christmas is a time of transition & tension…
For many years’ anthropologists have spoken of the important function of sacred spaces within societies. Within our society, the Christmas – New Year period acts as a sacred space as opposed to an ordinary space.
Sacred spaces are designated spaces where the usual norms and values of society are subverted, for example at Christmas our usual values around eating healthily, drinking in moderation, going to work every week are turned on their heads. By subverting these norms and values, sacred spaces work to reinforce ordinary norms and values outside of sacred spaces.
As a result, the transition period between the sacred and the ordinary is fraught with tensions which audiences have to negotiate. For example at Christmas audiences often have to navigate between: excess/restraint, community/individualism, stillness/activity.
So, what does this have to do with Christmas adverts? Christmas adverts are a key part of the build up to Christmas and therefore the transition period from ordinary to sacred. As a result, they often reflect the transition between particular values associated with the ordinary and the sacred.
Back to the 80s & 1800s
Throughout this year’s Christmas adverts there has been two dominant strands of nostalgia: 80’s nostalgia and nostalgia for an even deeper past from the 1920s to medieval times! Both strands of nostalgia have been used to signify the transition between two different kinds of tension.
Some of this year’s most popular Christmas adverts fit into this category including the John Lewis advert featuring Excitable Edgar, Sainsbury’s with Nicholas the Sweep and Aldi with Kevin the Carrot! All these adverts are distinctly based in Britain’s distant past; Aldi focusing on the 1920s with Peaky Blinders-esque gangster sprouts, John Lewis opting for a medieval village and Sainsbury’s taking us back to Victorian Britain.
They use these eras to signify conflict-ridden and unequal societies with Sainsbury’s Nicholas involved in child labour, carrots unfairly demonised by sprouts and Edgar unfairly banished for his over-excitable nature. All feature angry mobs and the unfair exclusion and punishment of individuals.
However, the main characters in each are able to transform these conflict-ridden, unfair and unequal societies into accepting and unified communities, thus marking the arrival of Christmas. They mark this transition from conflict to communality through the use of colour transitioning from a grey palette to bright reds, golds and oranges.
So why use Britain’s distant past? Typically, feudalism, the Victorian era and even the Great depression of the 1920’s were eras of extreme division and the exclusion of outsiders. By placing the adverts within these historical contexts, they help mark the transition between conflict/communality by playing on the narratives associated with those eras.
Drawing on 80’s nostalgia has a different result, instead of signifying a transition from conflict to communality, it helps signify a transition from stagnation to transformation. Both Argos, M&S and TESCO, draw on the 80s heavily with TESCO including allusions to back to the future and archive footage from Bullseye, Argos centring their story around Simple Minds’ iconic Don’t You (Forget About Me) and M&S featuring House of Pain’s Jump Around (released in 1989).
Across all three adverts, the main protagonist’s transition from dullness and drudgery to scenes of excitement, action and personal development. In the case of Argos, the father and daughter duo are transformed from being tired and bored to following their dreams and becoming rock stars with their ordinary kitchen becoming an epic stage. While M&S jumpers transform boring, old fashioned Christmases into raging parties and TESCO food transforms the past into the future via a time travelling delivery van.
The use of 80’s music, clothing and TV shows throughout these adverts help cement this idea of self-transformation, excitement and rapid change. The 1980s are synonymous with rapid growth within the UK economy and rapid modernisation, with recent 80’s throwback shows such as Stranger Things exploring the rapid introduction of new technology, new ways of self-expression and new ways of shopping.
One notable advert that doesn’t employ nostalgia but still plays on the stagnation/transformation tension is Ikea’s ‘Silence the Critics’ advert featuring Drill artist D Double E. The advert sees a family transform their living room from old-fashioned and time-trapped to trendy and modern in time for their Christmas Dinner. However, it uses modern and urban signifiers, such as Drill music, a family living in a flat and London location, to communicate this the transition between stagnation/transformation rather than 1980’s nostalgia.
The purpose of Noëlstalgia
So, all this nostalgia has a clear purpose and function, it’s playing on people’s happy memories but also navigating complex tensions! Christmas adverts map the transition between the ordinary associated with conflict and stagnation and the sacred associated with communality and transformation.
Given the current political climate, where the country is deeply divided, these adverts suggest that the sacred Christmas period is a time for togetherness and positive change. Navigating a transition from a stagnated and conflicted society to a collective and positive society by harking back to a time where issues like Brexit were non-existent.