Tis the season to be jolly. Or so we thought. This year’s crop of Christmas ads  has been met with backlash, controversy and just general mean-spiritedness, and it’s starting to feel like this is par for the course. In a continually changing world, where people are more sensitive to the needs and plights of others, is the nearly three-month-long onslaught of Christmas advertising just an out-of-date tradition?

Marks & Sparks sparks debate

The biggest uproar this year was in relation to the M&S clothing and home campaign , which was seen as being uptight and Scroogey or, depending on who you asked, anti-Palestine.

The main message of the star-studded ad is a noble one: “This Christmas, do only what you love”. In the advert, we see celebs saying no to the things they don’t want to do this festive season, like board games, Christmas cards, and the obnoxious Elf on a Shelf. It’s all meant in jest, and it’s paired with a cover of Meatloaf’s classic ‘I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)’, which is both fun and extremely fitting.

However, certain members of the Great British public took umbrage with this, claiming that the ad “puts two fingers up” to traditional Christmas values and is a “shocking celebration of selfishness”. Are these people just desperate to find something to be angry about and  looking for a reaction? Most likely. However, those who claimed that the shots of red, silver and green paper crowns being burned in a fireplace that M&S shared on Instagram were sending an anti-Palestinian message… yeah, those people are certifiably bonkers. Not least because the advert was filmed in August, two months before the latest attack in the ongoing conflict made global headlines. As Tan France, one of the stars of the ad, put it: “maybe you’re reaching with your ridiculous comments.”

What happens when everyone has a voice?

Thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to share your opinions with others. This has been great for activism in all its forms, helping to spread messages and raise awareness of the experiences of others. Unfortunately, this also means that anyone with an internet connection is free to post every single thought that pops into their brains, whether warranted or not.

While freedom of speech is a positive thing, social media has made it very easy for the general public to spew out vitriol in the heat of the moment without much thought. This is part of the reason why we see so many headlines these days about ‘huge backlash’ in response to certain comments or events. 20 years ago, it took a lot more time and effort to write a letter of complaint or pick up the phone to call Ofcom; these days, you can just type out a tweet (or whatever we’re calling those now) and send it in a matter of seconds. And as news outlets try everything in their power to remain relevant, they jump on the tiniest trend and report it as fact.

Is it time for woke culture to take a nap?

Over the last couple of years, it feels as though the term ‘woke’ has started to shift into the realms of insult. More specifically, it’s the sort of thing you might expect a boomer to use to refer to a meddlesome millennial with too many opinions. And I hate to side with the boomers, but it does seem like things are starting to get out of hand.

Don’t get me wrong; the wokening of the world has been long overdue, and even with the positive steps made in equality, diversity and environmentalism, there’s still a long way to go. However, we seem to be heading towards a society that isn’t allowed to have any fun; one where a difference of opinions is seen as antagonism instead of highlighting the rich and fascinating complexities of the human race; one where straying from the norm is seen as a crime.

It’s hard to draw the line of responsibility when it comes to offence. Some people are of the opinion that people choose what they are offended by; others feel that it’s a person’s responsibility not to offend others. In reality, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There’s always room for sensitivity, and we all need to consider our words and actions, and how they might affect others. On the other hand, we also need to remember that not everything is about, or intended for, us.

Are Christmas ads the right place for activism?

Over recent years, we’ve seen more and more brands using their Christmas adverts to highlight a cause, such as Iceland’s 2018 offering, which was banned for being ‘too political’. This charmingly illustrated ad was a reworking of a Greenpeace campaign raising awareness of the impact of palm oil on the environment and the habitats of wild animals such as orangutans. Christmas is said to be a time of peace and goodwill, but apparently that sentiment doesn’t extend to other species.

This year, Iceland has once again chosen to make a point with their Christmas ad, by not making a Christmas ad at all. In a LinkedIn post, the supermarket’s Executive Chairman Richard Walker said: “As a business we were faced with a decision: Do we spend millions creating and sharing a TV advert or do we invest the money supporting our customers during the cost-of-living crisis? This was a no-brainer.”

Brands all over the world are spending millions of pounds on their Chrtistmas advertising, which is designed to encourage the general public to spend millions of pounds on their merchandise. Make it make sense. As global economies continue to spiral out of control, the consumerism of Christmas is starting to feel completely ludicrous.

So where does that leave Christmas ads?

The fun and glitz and tradition of the Christmas ad season is a compelling reason to keep things going, but one look at your local highstreet with its empty storefronts and increasing homeless population might make you think again. That’s not to say that we should outlaw Christmas and rise up against capitalism (Wait, is that a bad idea…?), but just that brands should be more responsible with the money and resources at their disposal.

Christmas is the perfect time to double down on charitable efforts, and some brands have embraced the spirit of giving during the festive season, such as Lidl’s toy bank. However, many of these campaigns tend to be sidelined to the final frames of the ad, seeming more like an afterthought than a sincere mission.

Millennials make up the largest percentage of global consumers, and some of the main reasons driving purchasing decisions for this demographic are social issues such as inequality, climate change and LGTBQ+ rights. By stepping away from the OTT Christmas ad and instead working to support causes that are close to the hearts of their key demographics, brands can foster loyalty and improve their corporate image, leading to stronger sales in the longer term.

Of course, as we’ve learned from the reaction to recent Christmas campaigns that have made a stand (or have been perceived to be making a stand), finding the right balance of festivities and altruism is harder than you might think. Brands and their chosen advertising houses have got their work cut out for them but, if they manage to pull it off, they could see an exceptional return on their investment.