Tapping into nostalgia to look back on some timeless holiday commercials.
The ball has dropped, the glasses have been raised, and in the spirit of Guy Lombardo, Aud Lyn Sygn has been sung. Another trip around the sun, but how’d we get here again already? Feels like just yesterday we were carving the Thanksgiving turkey. In reality, the tree has been trimmed, presents wrapped and December was here and gone in the blink of an eye. Another Christmas has slipped through our fingers. Hmm… if only the work day could be as swift. Soon the walls will be bare, the lights unplugged and we will be back in the normal swing of things. I can’t help but to think of Jerry Seinfeld’s bit where he says: “People snap out of that Christmas spirit like it was a drunken stupor. “Oh my god, there’s a tree inside the house!”” Isn’t that the truth?
Although the years go by, some things seem to stick. I’m not talking about the typical traditions and family customs that lie more at the heart of the holidays, but the more irresistible, commercial stuff that throws us all into a Groundhog Day-like trance each year. There’s the holiday movie marathons, the non-stop Christmas radio and something a little more subtle to most: Christmas commercials. As we enter this new year, I would like to reflect on this past month and some of the traditional holiday commercials that help make each year “the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f****** Kaye.”
I’ll begin with possibly the simplest commercial out of the bunch that most anyone across the country would recognize even by just hearing it. Christmas Bells was introduced by Hershey’s in 1989 and has been around ever since. The commercial features a stop motion clip of a red and green Hershey’s Kiss bell choir forming the shape of a Christmas tree, clinging, and clanging the song, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. It is very minimal, with just a white backdrop and “Happy Holidays from Hershey’s Kisses” text at the bottom that has varied through the years. In 2012, to keep up with higher definition televisions and a crisper look, an identical version was recreated entirely with CGI. Your average joe would never know the difference with the new CGI version, but in 2020 when Hershey released an alternate ending where a hand reaches in and grabs a Kiss, the nit-picking nostalgic fans gave some negative backlash. Hershey made it clear that the original spot wasn’t going anywhere and certainly would still be running, but they wanted to make an additional version to shine light on Hershey’s Kisses’ importance within holiday baking as well. It is still known to be the longest running national Christmas commercial.
This next spot doesn’t fall far from the (Christmas) tree, as it comes from the same family. The M&M’s “Faint” commercial first aired in 1996 featuring ahead-of-its-time CGI of the Red and Yellow M&M bickering as they walk in on Santa delivering gifts on Christmas Eve. Santa and Red M&M both pass out as they come to the quick realization of each other’s existence while Yellow M&M is left wondering what to do. The unresolved ending has featured various “Happy Holidays” messages over the years with very discreet changes. It wasn’t until 21 years later that we finally got to see what happened on that fateful Christmas Eve night. In 2017, MARS’s aired a sequel to the original commercial that begins where the other left off. Yellow decides that he must save Christmas and delivers all the gifts by manning the reindeer and sleigh. It isn’t until the next morning that a finally conscious Santa, Red and Yellow see that all the gifts were delivered to the wrong people. Just when Yellow thinks that he ruined Christmas, we see images of people exchanging the gifts to the correct recipients accompanied with hugs and thanksgivings. With all three perched on a rooftop, witnessing everyone come together on Christmas morning, Red gestures that along with not ruining Christmas, he made it even better. The heartwarming conclusion to the 21-year saga is wrapped up like a Christmas bow, with a fitting message reading, “Bring Everyone Together With M&M’s.”
“This holiday season, my good friend gave to me…” These opening lines may only ring a bell to someone that has lived in PA at any point over the past 30 years. This Pennsylvania Lottery commercial, titled Snowfall, opens with an elderly man named Joe walking the well-lit, snow-covered streets, handing out lottery tickets to his friends. As he makes his rounds to Rita, at the coffee shop and another at the local news stand, carolers fill the streets, singing a twist on the classic 12 Days of Christmas tune. Introduced 1992, The Pennsylvania Lottery has been airing it ever since. Well, sort of. If not for some publicity and the World Wide Web, I’m sure almost nobody would ever know that a shot-for-shot remake was created in 2013 to better suit the High-Definition broadcasting that has become the standard. Though the lyrics have endured minor tweaks to reflect the current games offered, The PA Lottery painstakingly held on to as much detail as possible in an effort to stay true to the beloved classic. Of course, the haters still claim that the old one is better (I may or may not be one of them), but opinions aside, you can’t help but to tip your hat to the efforts of keeping the spirit of a tradition alive.
This final commercial that I am going to discuss has branches reaching to Ohio and West Virginia, but it’s heart (and star) lies in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is not known for sure, but this ad is heavily debated as the longest running Christmas commercial. Eat’n Park’s Christmas Star originally aired in 1982 when CEO at the time, Jim Broadhurst, wanted to create a video holiday card to thank the city of Pittsburgh for their support of Eat’n Park. He wanted to air something in the same vein as the old Budweiser holiday commercials, where promoting a product was not the main objective. Legend has it that when pitch after pitch were turned down and a deadline was soon approaching, a young duo at a local ad agency struck gold when the two happened to both make an impromptu visit into work on a Sunday. In a team effort, they came up with one heartwarming message that Pittsburgh refuses to let go. The iconic commercial features an animation sequence of a star trying with all of its might to rest atop a Christmas tree. After some failed attempts, the tree leans over to help the star reach the top as a build-up of triumphant music plays. As the star sits atop the tree, they both shine bright as a voice reads, “We hope the special lift you get this holiday season lasts all year long.” The message is nothing but positive. We see that by helping others, we not only better ourselves, but we make the world a more beautiful place to live.
So, what has made these ads stand the test of time? Some don’t last more than a year before they are replaced. Others, such as the Folger’s and Budweiser spots, have had a nice run and hold some historic popularity but somewhere along the line, have fluttered out as the years went on. It’s hard to really say. Yes, they are all great commercials. Well-made, creative, catchy, but I feel that at one point or another these have all walked a tightrope act to get to where they are today. I feel that the more years that these have run, the more that they etched their way into tradition, lessening their chances of getting canned. During the holiday season, people tend to be more nostalgic, more sentimental. This is ideal in advertising because by tapping into nostalgia you’re more likely to connect with your audience. After years of seeing something during the holidays, it becomes ingrained within their holiday memories. Each year when you see one of these pop up on the TV, it can take you back to when you were a kid, much in the same sense that holiday movies and music do. Some of these have run for so long that not only do people have their own memories of it growing up, but now their kids do too. Being able to share these commercials multi-generationally gives us another opportunity to share another type of tradition with our loved ones. Even for those brief moments when flashing across our screens while watching the tube with friends and family, they can evoke, in each of us, deep-rooted holiday memories of the times when they first caught our eyes.
I’m excited to see how our beloved Christmas commercials will look next year. I wonder if any will begin to emerge as a new classic. Only time will tell…