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21 December 2018

Most Christians live in the global south. So why are Christmas ads so snowy?

Future Christmas motifs could feature more sandmen and hot air balloons than reindeers.

By Salonee Gadgil

Christmas, being the most widely celebrated festival in the world, tends to be the natural focal point of the annual marketing calendar for a lot of brands. While Christmas ads come in all shapes and sizes, there are some recurring themes; gift giving, family time, the spreading of joy and a nostalgic look back at how things used to be. Basically, the warm fuzzies. 

Make-believe monsters, lovey-dovey carrots and most recently Sir Elton John have made their way into the Great British Christmas. They play their parts against a backdrop of Christmassy motifs; twinkling fairy lights, a man in red suit, reindeers, trees with baubles and snow. A lot of snow and chilly weather. 

Take Coca Cola: since 1993 the brand has used polar bears in festive-themed adverts. Polar bears don’t really have a place in the original Nativity scene (otherwise there would have been a lot less sheep). And though Monty’s not quite as old as the polar bears, John Lewis’ award-winning and much loved 2014 Christmas ad added a penguin to the pantheon of winter-themed characters associated with the festival. 

The snow has become an instantly recognisable Christmas motif. Because Christmas happens in the winter, right? Or are we forgetting the southern hemisphere? South America, Australia and New Zealand, Africa and South Asia, all of which have significant numbers of people who celebrate Christmas in the sun. There are more than two billion Christians in the world, and while in 1900 the vast majority lived in Europe, as of 1980 there were more Christians in the global south than the north (although China could still shake things up again), and by 2010, roughly three-quarters lived in Africa, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East or the Americas.

Christmas in the sun comes with a whole other set of motifs. A large majority of South America’s population, 428 million as per the latest UN numbers, are Christian, and celebrate the festival in weather that is more suited to beer than eggnog. Argentina has a beautiful Christmas tradition where globos or mini hot air balloons are sent into the summer sky; think tropical heat and long summer evenings like we’d expect from a Mediterranean summer.

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In the tropical heat of the Philippines, rice cakes are more weather appropriate than mince pies, and the absence of snow means front yards can be decorated with parols – five pointed paper lanterns shaped like stars. Barbecues on the beach are a common Christmas activity in South Africa or Australia. Down Under, decorations often depict Santa’s sleigh being led by kangaroos and “snow men” are fashioned out of sand on the beach.

In Ethiopia, “regular” Christmas is followed by Christmas of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on 7 January. Devout worshippers mark the occasion with a pilgrimage to the historic site of Lalibela. Dressed in traditional white turbans and drapes that protect them from the dry desert heat, pilgrims walk in large numbers to pray in ancient churches carved in rock. There are no drinks or lavish meals or jingle bells. Ethiopian Christmas looks more like haj, the journey Muslim pilgrims make to Mecca.

And yet we rarely see a glimpse of all these interpretations of Christmas in Western TV, film and advertising. We’re told that Christmas is about all things good, peaceful, happy and pure. Perhaps at some level snow fits into this narrative: a metaphorical white blanket that we pull over our troubles once each year.

But there are several parts of the world where Christmas myths aren’t just warm and fuzzy. Perhaps during the miserable, dark weather of a Northern winter, there’s more need for the metaphorical warmth of happy stories and revelry. But interestingly, in warmer parts of the world, happy Christmas myths are balanced out by reminders of evil, sadness or loss.

In Italy, Santa is followed by La Befana, or the Christmas witch, who extends the festivities into the new year by delivering gifts in the first week of January. The Portuguese place extra plate settings for dead family members at the Christmas dinner table. Though this sounds morbid, it’s meant to be an act of remembrance.

Liberians have a tradition of an old beggar man, who walks around the town entertaining people with jokes, songs and dancing in an attempt to elicit food, drink and alms. Ignore him and you may be the subject of his ridicule; he’ll mockingly remind you of your moral duty to give the needy.

South Africans believe in the myth of Danny, a little boy who ate Santa’s cookies and angered his grandmother so much that she killed him. He haunts homes on Christmas day reminding kids not to take what isn’t theirs. And in Guatemala people gather in village squares to burn piles of garbage and an effigy of Satan, to symbolically cleanse themselves of the devil. All these traditions conjure up a rich tapestry of varied imagery, but are far from the joyous “white” narratives pushed by the West.

Creating global campaigns that resonate with consumers from all parts of the world and reflect a variety of traditions is definitely a challenge, one that marketers tear out their hair over. Some brands choose to vary their campaigns for different markets. Aldi’s UK advert features a feud between a carrot and a parsnip against a snowy backdrop. Its campaign Down Under, on the other hand, sees Santa crash-landing in the Australian outback. But most major brands like Amazon, Apple and McDonalds have released just a single Christmas ad this year, and stubbornly stick to the idea of a White Christmas.

There seems to be only one exception; Lego’s “first ever” global Christmas campaign is a hint of Christmases yet to come: it shows imaginative action movie-like scenes and children unwrapping presents, a pretty universal tradition. There isn’t a snowflake in sight, and the action plays out in ambiguous locations that could be anywhere in the world. 

Snowflakes and fireplaces are pretty and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them featuring in Christmas ads. That being said, it would be nice to see brands expanding the narrative to reflect the full diversity of the Christmas experience; not just by making sure the ads feature a diverse cast of people, but also by showing us the reality of what Christmas looks like in different parts of the world.

At the moment, brands like Apple and Amazon still make most of their money in the global west. This perhaps explains the Eurocentrism in Christmas ads; it comes down to the money. But as China begins to buy more Apple products and Amazon’s presence grows in India, I imagine a time will come when Christmas ads look very different from how they do now. Or perhaps Apple will spend the bulk of its advertising budget on an ad for Chinese New Year or Diwali. Either way, in years to come, we may very well see the snow melt away from festive advertising.