Christmas ads: Instilling the festive spirit (greed, avariciousness, gluttony)

Donald Clarke: There’s a reason advertising executives have second homes in Tuscany

We have, in these parts, managed to resist the annual hubbub surrounding the John Lewis Christmas advert. Nobody has talked much about the current incarnation that sees various versions of Elton John – receding in time as the hairline advances – playing increasingly crisper versions of Your Song. Why should we bother? Bar the odd concession in the odd department store, John Lewis doesn't have much to do with Ireland. Are you enjoying the advert? Maybe you'd like some soup with it. (Because you're "taking the soup," you see? Oh, please yourself.)

Never mind that. If you were writing a contemporary version of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu you might begin with your Marcel – dragged back by buns in Proust – enjoying a Catch bar or a bag of Rancheros. It would be better still to have him encounter an ancient Christmas advert on YouTube. Nothing does it like a blast of the once-annual Penneys spot. "Penneys, got a whole lotta things for Christmas, got a lot for the fam-i-ly…" You'll be singing that until New Year's Day. Don't thank me.

To properly transport us back, the advertisement needs the level of crapness that characterised so much of Irish media in the 1980s

You had to go somewhere near a church to hear the version of Good King Wenceslas that wasn't advertising firelighters. You might actually own a copy of Merry Christmas, Everybody and, if feeling so eccentric, could play it at will in mid-July. But the Christmas advertisements screened where you actually wanted to be – in front of the telly, obviously – and only did so in the festive season. Earlier generations knew Christmas was imminent when they were taken to some stupid carol service or to view some dreary crib. We perked up when the now-inconceivable cheapo adverts – the ones that featured a voiceover and static images – moved from extolling the virtues of liver-fluke remedies to offering Christmas wishes from all at Baloney's plumbing supplies in Listowel.

Guinness ad

The proper ads do more to instil the real spirit of Christmas (greed, avariciousness, gluttony) than full immersion in Handel's Messiah. The unavoidable Guinness one that, plucking notions from Joyce's The Dead, has a geezer wandering through snow towards a gate that has taken on the look of the advertised product is nicely done, but it's too recent to kick up the mixed emotions that caused the Greeks to form the compound "nostalgia" from the words for "homecoming" and "ache".


Try the Telecom Éireann one with the little girl phoning Santa Claus on her toy phone. There's a gloss about the promo that places it in an era when RTÉ had just abandoned the liver-fluke statics and the audience were coming to expect American standards of Christmas decoration. The great transformation had begun.

To properly transport us back, the advertisement needs the level of crapness that characterised so much of Irish media in the 1980s. Check out the awesome 1983 Quinnsworth advert that finds Maurice Pratt – a marketing director who achieved unlikely fame thanks largely to his unfortunate surname – introducing Darth Vader to the many bargains in the toy department. It's inconceivable that Disney, which now owns Star Wars, would let this happen now. "Hey Darth, let's look at the scanner," Pratt says as computer-generated prices strafe the meteor belt. "Darth" isn't a name, Pratt! It's a title. You call him "Vader" if you're intimate or "Lord Vader" if you're not. Shabby, shabby times.

Barry’s Tea

What else? The An Post advert scored to Walking in the Air is, in these territories, now almost as tied to that service as it is to The Snowman. A special place should be made for the Barry's Tea radio commercial, narrated by the late Peter Caffrey, that, for a quarter of a century, has been telling a touching tale about a dad who wants a train set.

Controversy surrounds one of the most popular choices for the best ever Irish Christmas TV ad. We're talking about the ESB spot from the late 1980s that, to the strains of Dusty Springfield's Going Back, takes a young Alan Hughes (I know!) from the returning train to his dad's car and on to a welcome from mum. Endless chums named this as their favourite, but is it really a Christmas advert? Gerry Goffin and Carole King's imperishable song actually makes mention of "Christmas chimes". The spot does not, however, seem to be set at that time of year. There is no tree in the house. There are no lights outside it.

Oh, who cares? The advert proves the central, hitherto unspoken thesis of this column. The cunning masterminds who run the advertising business are better at triggering ancient emotions than are the church, the poets or the great composers. There’s a reason they drive enormous cars and have second homes in Tuscany. They care not whether it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. They’ll be serving in neither.