Is it just me, or do the Christmas ads arrive earlier each year? This year they seemed to be off the starting blocks as soon as Hallowe’en was out of the way. And more retailers than ever seemed to want to get in on the act, seeking ever more imaginative ways to separate us from our money, by conjuring up heartwarming and occasionally tearjerking festive scenarios.
Besides being designed to sell products, these short films can also be seen as mini morality tales that reflect some of society’s current concerns. For those of us who research and write about families and relationships, the ads – which, unsurprisingly, tend to focus on families coming together to celebrate Christmas – offer a valuable snapshot of how those relationships are now viewed.
As I watched this year’s crop of Christmas ads, one question kept coming up for me: where’s the dad? Now, it could be that, given my research interests in fatherhood and men’s relationships with their children, this might have been a case of selective perception – but I don’t think so. Take this year’s John Lewis ad, for example. Once again, the retailer broke new ground by using scenes from the life of a celebrity – Elton John – as the vehicle for its Christmas message.
I was struck by the way the ad focuses on the relationship between the young Elton (real name Reginald Dwight) and his mother and grandmother, and by the complete absence of a father, or indeed any significant adult male character, in the story. Now it’s true that Elton’s father was often absent during his childhood, and he was raised mainly by his mother and grandmother. But his dad, who had been a trumpeter in a semi-professional big band, was apparently a key influence on his son’s developing musical talent. What’s more, his parents didn’t divorce until Elton was fourteen (some years after the iconic scene in the film when the child gets a piano for Christmas) – and then his mother got married again to a man who, by all accounts, was a caring and supportive stepfather. Didn’t either of these men merit a mention in the story of Elton’s rise to fame?
I suppose, strictly speaking, the emphasis on Elton’s relationship with his mother and grandmother is faithful to the reality of the musician’s childhood. And you can see why the filmmakers, charged with making a three-minute commercial, wanted to keep the story simple and the number of characters to a minimum. But is it completely accidental that they chose to feature a story from which anything resembling a father figure is totally absent?
The sense that the John Lewis video might not be a one-off, but perhaps part of a trend, was confirmed when I saw this year’s ad from Boots. This held a particular interest for me, as we saw it being filmed in our local market place in Hitchin back in November.
The rather cheesy story, told in the adapted words of Robbie Williams’ She’s The One (changed to ‘She’s me mum’) is about a teenage girl who sees her mother as a rather irritating presence who disapproves of everything she does and is intent on spoiling her fun. But then she sees her mum singing loud and proud – ‘stunning and strong’ – in a choir performing in front of the town Christmas tree, realises what a wonderful person she really is, and mother and daughter are reconciled in a heartwarming exchange of presents on Christmas morning. All fine and good – a nice, if rather twee story of a daughter learning to value her mother. But again: where’s the dad?
Yes, of course this reflects the reality of family life for an increasing number of children and young people: a 2013 report claimed that a million children in Britain were growing up without a resident father, and that the number of lone parent families was set to increase by 20,000 per year. But like the John Lewis ad, doesn’t this film also send a message: that dads are not really necessary or important?
In some of this year’s other Christmas advertisements, there is a faint suggestion that a father might be around, but he often seems to be peripheral to his children’s lives. For example, the Sainsbury’s ad centres on a school Christmas show, focusing on a little African-Caribbean girl who is dressed as a star – and indeed, turns out to be the star of the show. At first her voice is hesitant, then it grows in confidence, and her mother is seen in the audience willing her on, then beaming with pride. The film tracks back and forth between the two faces – those of the little girl and her mother. Right at the end, as the applause rings out, we get a glimpse of the mother leaning on a male shoulder, but we don’t see the face: is it a son, or a partner? If the latter, why don’t we see his pride in his daughter’s performance?
Once again, while it’s admirable that advertisers are sending a positive message about mothers, and the importance of maternal relationships (something I’ve written about elsewhere), I was still left asking: what about the dad, and once again why have the film makers chosen to focus on a fatherless scenario?
Of course, it could be argued that fathers are somewhat peripheral to the story of Christmas. When our children were young, we bought a set of Nativity figures to display in the fireplace at Christmas. When we unpacked them, we found that the set consisted of seven figures: Mary holding the baby Jesus, an angel, two shepherds and three kings – but no Joseph. It’s as though he’d been erased from the narrative – and I suppose some would say that the notion of a virgin birth makes a human father pretty redundant anyway. (On the other hand, I’ve always liked that line from the Gospel narrative: ‘He…shall turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.’) But maybe that’s a discussion for another time…
Against this background, it was a relief to come across a Christmas ad suggesting that dads might actually have a role to play at Christmas – and in their children’s lives generally. The ad for Barbour (yes, even they have a Christmas ad this year) re-tells the story of The Snowman, but this time it’s a girl rather than a boy who wonders if her snowman will come to life. She waits patiently in the cold, snowy garden as night falls, until her father comes out and affectionately puts a warm Barbour coat (what else?) around her shoulders.
However, for the season’s most touching father-child interaction we have to cross the Channel, and watch this ad for Bouygues mobile phones – even if it does rely on totally unfair stereotypes about ‘dad dancing’!
And finally, if you want to see a real tearjerker about dads at Christmas, then I’ll leave with you with this 2015 ad from German supermarket Edeka.
Frohe Weihnachten Papa! And a Merry Christmas to dads (and mums, and sons and daughters) everywhere…