When Is An Ad Not An Ad?


The turkeys might be thinner this Christmas, but the ads are definitely fatter.

Whether selling tinsel and turkey or a price comparison service, most brands are aiming for their biggest and most emotive communications at this time of year. And while some are festively and appropriately chubby, others seem to have ‘let themselves go’.

Seasonal offerings from comparethemarket.com, Playstation, KFC, Hunter (wellies), and Sainsbury’s all weigh in at over 2m30s. There is not an empirically proven time at which a piece of film turns from an ‘ad’ to ‘content’, but when brands do use longer time lengths they need to be able to hold their audience’s attention. This means approaching things in a different way. They need a narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle and end; or in TV talk, a catalyst, conflict (to keep you on the edge of your seat) and conclusion.

The perennially cheerful meerkats deliver on this well. Alexandr sets out the catalyst quite prosaically when he announces (in a meerkatty voice, from his little soap box) ‘We are here to celebrate one year of comparethemeerkat.com sponsoring Coronation Street, so… let me introduce Gary Barlow’. There is conflict when Gary flies into a polite rage about the small scale of the street party and lack of real musicians and there’s a happily ever after conclusion complete with fireworks.

The Playstation offering feels more like a loop than an arc, especially if you, like me, miss the catalyst for this film hidden in a hashtag in the first 10 seconds (inspired by #playstationmemories). What I was more conscious of was Bond levels of product placement: cue repeated crash zooms onto Domino’s pizza boxes, long time gamers’ friend, even Milky Bar Buttons and a Coke Zero propped up against the Sony screen. I’m sure these touches were intended to add authenticity, but they felt heavy-handed and further confused the narrative of this film.

The KFC Christmas bonanza might be a huge step forward for them, but is still very much an ad. Just a very long one. It is jolly and kitsch and festive and all those good things but still feels like a series of product messages in Christmas wrapping. The narrative arc, you could argue is complete half way through when the group are united by the taste of KFC; so what follows is more festive padding. That’s why, though it might raise a wry smile in a TV ad break, I wonder if it’s the type of content that will attract millions of YouTube views?

Hunter wellies do tell us a story, but unfortunately it is just their brand story. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it needs to be told in a compelling way to entertain the audience and avoid looking self-indulgent. The result for Hunter is an impressive panorama of a film, which lacks any sense of jeopardy and is not as gripping as it might have been.

And finally, to really get you in the festive spirit is Sainsbury’s ‘Christmas in a day’, a heartwarming YouTube feature film about 'real-life' British Christmas. The narrative evolves gently in the 3m30s trailer version with a brilliantly played emotional conclusion.

So I think the yuletide message is, don’t forget to play nicely girls and boys. Santa is watching and you need to entertain your audience, especially when you command their attention for a long period of time, or they will switch off and all you’ll get for Christmas is a clementine and pair of socks.

What do you think? When is an ad not an ad? Which are your favourite Christmas Crackers?

Kath Hipwell, Planning Director