They say Christmas is a time for sharing, so it’s only natural that most brands jump at the chance to create a piece of film with great viral potential. One brand that has become unbeatable in this arena is British department store, John Lewis. However, this Christmas, Swiss insurer Zurich joined in the festivities with the release of their own yuletide offering, Save the Snowman, created by McCann Worldgroup.
Set in a small Swiss village on the first day of spring, Save the Snowman shows Zurich workers rescuing endangered snowmen, by taking them on an epic journey to the top of the Alps. It ends with the line, “When you really love something, you protect it in the best way”. The whole thing is nicely put together and ties in perfectly with Zurich’s current “For those who truly love” position, but as Christmas campaigns go, it seems to be lacking something. Evidence for this assumption can be seen in the viewing figures. Since its release over a week ago, Save the Snowman has received slightly over 86,000 views on its Swiss YouTube channel, and just under 13,000 (at last count) for its official UK video. Compare that to UK Christmas advertising giant John Lewis, whose current Christmas campaign Monty The Penguin has reached over 18 million views since its release just two weeks earlier, on November 6th.
Now, to compare John Lewis and Zurich Christmas ad viewing statistics directly is undoubtedly unfair. After all, ever since the 2007 release of Shadow, John Lewis has become a legend in the world of modern day Christmas advertising. A fact that was cemented in 2011 with the The Long Wait – an emotive ad that shows a boy impatiently waiting for Christmas Day, because, as it turns out, he has a gift he cannot wait to give to his parents. This very relatable tale captured both the zeitgeist of the moment and the public’s imagination, paving the way for John Lewis to become the most celebrated and anticipated of all Christmas advertisers.
So, as you can imagine, it would be extremely difficult for anyone to compete. This is especially true of a global insurance company, which has very little connection to Christmas at all. Nevertheless, when watching Zurich’s Save the Snowman film, it is impossible not to be reminded of John Lewis’s 2012 piece, The Journey. Another showstopping ad that tells the story of one courageous snowman’s own epic journey to give his beloved the gift she deserves. It was a massive success, and at last count, has over 5 million views.
Obviously, no one is claiming that Zurich has ripped off The Journey, it is Christmas and clearly snowmen are part and parcel of that. The two ads do invite comparison though. The distinction between them would appear to be the emotional content, or lack-there-of, within the pieces. The Journey – a fanciful true love story, tugged at our heartstrings, by somehow managing to make the love of a snowman and a snow woman warm our cold, skeptical hearts. And while Save the Snowman is more realistic, it is also unquestionably, colder.
So what is the magic ingredient that makes John Lewis ads so much more powerful?
Well, for starters, just listen to the music tracks. The Journey uses a moving cover of The Power Of Love by Gabrielle Aplin, while Zurich chooses an unrecognisable, far less emotive and almost sombre number. Another notable difference is the use of metaphorical fiction versus documentary style. While John Lewis paints a beautiful, some might say magical, picture and then stands back and allows the metaphor to speak for the store, Zurich comes plodding in, steel-toe booted and blue ski-jacket clad, and literally saves the day. One barely has time to react to the tragic faces of the doomed and dripping snowmen, before they are systematically and efficiently transported to their salvation by the Zurich team – leaving the audience, somewhat ironically, unmoved.
I can imagine Zurich’s frustration with this discrepancy in viewership and enthusiasm – this is a story about saving children’s snowmen for goodness sake, why are people’s hearts not melting? For me, it’s all just too logical, too clinical. It’s real, but it’s a little too real. The snowmen are barely even cute or in anyway expressive, and the children don’t really seem that cut up about the whole thing. Basically, overall the whole thing lacks feeling, and for a film, it’s missing a story. Characterisation, tension, plot – these are the things that draw us into John Lewis Christmas ads time and again. We care about the little boy waiting for Christmas, the brave snowman, and the adorable young lad with the pet penguin named, Monty. We are emotionally invested in these characters from the first moment. That is why we look forward to John Lewis’s contribution every year, and that is ultimately why we share them, again and again.
Finally, there is one last (some might say pernickety) issue I have with the Zurich campaign, and that’s their choice of subject matter. Why Zurich chose to associate itself with the protection of something fragile and evocative of Christmas is understandable, but why they chose snowmen for this purpose is more than a little confusing. After all, this is a company whose namesake and home city of Zurich is famous for their Sechseläuten festival. An age-old tradition that sees one poor giant snowman filled with fireworks and burned in effigy on a large bonfire to mark the arrival of spring. To me, Zurich creating a campaign that not only ignores this tradition, but also vastly contradicts it, is kind of the same as Tesco running a heartwarming tale about a turkey that’s saved from the chopping block, beside a special offer on Christmas stuffing.
But then again, maybe I’m just being a bit of a Scrooge about the whole thing…