Written by Nicole Marques, CNN
Ashley Jenson, a former Wimbledon tennis hopeful and the Daily Telegraph’s head of agency, knew she had struck gold with the store’s recent Christmas advert
“I wanted something to bring people together that wasn’t an ‘X-mas look and feel’ but something that just made us all happy,” she says. “It wasn’t a nostalgic tale. We don’t want to be too far removed from the real world, but it does encapsulate what Waitrose is all about.”
And what Jenson got was a cooking show starring celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal that pairs a love of Christmas with a commitment to local British produce, complete with bread on the side. The concept has proven a blockbuster, making it to number five in the BBC’s annual list of most watched TV ads
In the minute-long sequence, Jenson cooks a decadent Christmas feast under the ominous mood of “Black Sabbath,” while Blumenthal dons a heavy-metal suit to lead a zombie army over a bed of rubble. Throughout, holograms of the two disappear, leading to a dramatic finale in which a group of loyal zombies (who used to call themselves “George and Pops”) reunite to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
“It’s something totally new and different and I think that’s why it’s such a big hit,” she says. “It’s quirky, it’s high-quality and it looks like the future, but it’s brilliantly affordable.”
This English Christmas is fast becoming the 21st-century’s equivalent of “Black Sabbath” — a riff on the heavy metal classic that launched a thousand bowling alleys. The advertising shows nothing but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Soho spots with scary facades, often with names like “Mundo Temple” and “Secret Temple.”
The viewer is immediately confronted with a upped-and-out euphemism for cannibalism (Harvey’s Plough), endlessly repeating repeated “Oh no” lines from “Ed Wood,” and a meandering, religious-themed tenement complex (the Conduit) that refers to “The Christ Pigeon,” “The Beardless Manger” and “The Flying Basketcase.” The stew has the aroma of a seething latrine, but is intended as an ode to contemporary life in London.
In taking the festival of light to such extreme lengths, Waitrose is being shamelessly, occasionally absolutely, cheeky. Their barmy concept has clearly worked; watch the video and you’ll get the impression that every commercial or commercial film comes with a side order of about the same artistic posturing.
There is a marked lack of forward thinking in creativity, says Charles Godber, a professor of English literature at the University of London.
“It’s quite a certain strain of commercial advertising where — like in all commercial movies and plays — nothing actually happens,” he says. “It’s just you wake up in the morning, have your breakfast, pop some cereal into your mouth and you’re fine.”
“It’s like being treated to a play. It’s not the actual play, but the way you can see in the camera movement, the way the actors talk in those close-ups, is an obvious way of preparing you for the play,” he adds.
But the mere existence of a commercial wasteland doesn’t matter, says Holly Summers, professor of psychology at Edge Hill University, as long as the ad communicates an emotion — and shopping is not a feeling.
“We all have moments of detachment from the commercial marketplace,” she says. “When you hear words like ‘Christmas’, you think, this is so inauthentic and detached and full of double-meaning, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad or strange. I see it as a concept that’s been passed down through history — and not just limited to advertising.”
Both Godber and Summers accept that customers would rather not watch ads, but the appeal of packaged holidays, apparels and food doesn’t translate into emotional response.
“Once you’re already in your shopping cart, you’re going to see stuff through the window and it doesn’t matter what that stuff is,” Godber says. “It could be very, very interesting but not emotionally engaging.”
Summers, too, can see benefits in merely creating awareness.
“I want to buy a fizzy drink — do I want to be ‘hunted down by zombies’ to buy it?” she says. “I think advertising has a limited role. Advertising is usually going to give the impression that you have to buy certain stuff.”
She emphasizes, though, that “a lot of research shows that a lot of stuff we