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A still from the Iceland Christmas ad that was barred from TV broadcastYouTube/Iceland

Are these the most controversial Christmas ads of all time?

We just can't get enough of banned ads

Ashitha Nagesh
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This year's Iceland Christmas ad, featuring a message about palm oil, was fairly conventional - in that it was a tearjerker, it had the sad music etc etc. Maybe it was a surprise that it came from Iceland (a supermarket usually associated with frozen prawns), but on the whole, it was pretty standard Christmas ad stuff.

That was until it got 'banned'. Suddenly its views on social media skyrocketed. At the time of writing, the one-and-a-half minute clip had already been watched 15 million times on Facebook, 4.6 million times on YouTube, and Iceland's original Twitter post had been retweeted more than 91,000 times.

And that's not even counting all the other views from celebs like James Corden sharing it.

Such was the outrage over the banning of the ad that a petition has generated almost one million signatures calling for the "ban to be overturned so the ad can be on TV screens at Christmas". The ad was barred not for its anti-palm oil stance but because the animation was originally created for a political group (Greenpeace) - which meant airing it on TV would be unlawful. But that didn't stop people seeing the decision by Clearcast - the body that clears ads for broadcast on TV - as an act of censorship.

Of course, we're not suggesting the only reason people are sharing the ad is because it was banned from TV broadcast. It's a cute yet sad story about an orangutan named Rang Tang - who wouldn't want to watch that? But experts are pretty much in agreement that, intentional or not, the whole thing has been a bit of a blessing in disguise for Iceland.

And it's all down to our fascination with controversial ads - especially around Christmas.

To add some context, Christmas ads are a b i g  d e a l. Ever since the first tearjerker John Lewis ad back in 2011 - the one about the kid who couldn't wait to give his parents their gift - big brands premiering their festive TV adverts has become a full-blown tradition. Companies are willing to spend an eye-watering amount of money on these ads, just to have skin in the game. And this style of featuring an emotional, self-contained narrative is now so common that industry bods refer to the phenomenon as 'John Lewisification' (bit of a mouthful, sorry). Their latest offering, which charts the life and career of Sir Elton John, is no exception.

John Lewis Elton ChristmasYouTube/John Lewis
A still from John Lewis's 2018 Christmas ad

“Christmas is a time of tradition,” Kelly O’Hanlon, a lecturer at Birmingham City University who specialises in advertising and PR, tells me. “It’s about repeating rituals, reinforcing certain ideals, like a festive comfort blanket. So, year after year, big brands use PR and advertising to really commodify that idea of Christmas.”

However, Kelly admits that this heartwarming style “seems to have hit a plateau” - which may explain why ads that break the mould are so compelling.

If you think back to some of the most memorable Christmas ads, we guarantee that at least a couple of them were controversial for one reason or another. Remember these?

Greggs and the sausage roll Jesus

You might wonder what the most appropriate festive message is for a bakery chain known mainly for its steak bakes. An iced snowman, perhaps? Maybe Santa eating a pasty?

Well, last year, Greggs didn't go for any of these. Instead, they chose to show the three wise men gathered around a manger in a traditional nativity scene. Fair enough, you might think. Except, inside the manger - right where baby Jesus should have been - was a sausage roll. 

People took offence to this because it was ultimately riffing off a sacred image - something many people believe to be the true meaning of Christmas,” Kelly says. “Obviously people from different religions and backgrounds celebrate Christmas because it’s closely tied to family, but, at the same time, it shows that every element of Christmas has now been commercialised - and people don’t necessarily like that.”

After a backlash, Greggs released a statement apologising for any offence caused, saying it was never their intention to make light of people’s beliefs. 

Behind every great Christmas there's outrage

If you like casual sexism, then you'll love Asda’s 2012 Christmas campaign, which attracted more than 600 complaints from men and women for its strapline: “Behind every great Christmas there’s mum, and behind every mum there’s Asda.”

Viewers took umbrage with the doubly insulting implication that it’s a woman’s job to do domestic work and men are too lazy and incompetent to help with Christmas preparations.

Not ideal - although the supermarket was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) at the end of January 2013.

Elf on the pull... oops, we mean shelf

Speaking of allegedly sexist ads, remember the Poundland Christmas campaign that showed, erm… an elf teabagging Barbie?

Yes, this was a real series of ads posted on the chain's social media accounts last year. Aside from this image, which featured an elf with a teabag dangling from his crotch, there were photos of the elf in a hot tub with naked Barbies, an elf thrusting with a toothbrush by its crotch, and the elf drawing a penis-shaped cactus on an Etch A Sketch.

And for the more innocent among you... well, we'll leave you to look up what teabagging is. (Just don't search for images.)

As you can imagine, it didn’t go down well (pun not intended, gutter brains). After numerous complaints, the ASA eventually ruled the ads were irresponsible and shouldn't appear again in their current form - both because they were sexually explicit and could be seen by children on social media, and also because some of the images "present the female dolls in a manner which could be seen as demeaning to women".

Hidden Nazi symbols in a Christmas ad... wait, what?

This 2016 ad for German supermarket Edeka seems super-wholesome, showing a family getting together for Christmas dinner.

Innocent enough - or at least it was, until viewers started to notice something rather unsettling.

Edeka carYouTube/Edeka
The supermarket had to deny there was Nazi messaging in the ad

According to critics, there was neo-Nazi symbolism in the car licence plates shown in the ad. One registration number, 'MU SS 420', was particularly suspicious - with an academic publicly claiming the SS was a reference to the Nazi secret police and '420' was neo-Nazi code for Hitler’s birthday (20 April). Drivers in Germany are also forbidden from having 'SS' in their licence plates, she pointed out.

As you can imagine, Edeka was extremely quick to deny the claims. 'MU SS', they insisted, was meant to mean 'muss' - the German word for 'must', which was repeated in the ad’s title song.

“The number plate with ‘MU SS’ is a fantasy number plate, based on the title song in our spot,” a spokesman told German media at the time. “We regret the fact that a wrong impression is created here. This was in no way our intention.”

What does this have to do with cakes?

Yeah, this ad was more 'exceedingly grim' than 'exceedingly good'.

For some reason that will forever elude us, Mr Kipling decided to advertise their cakes in Christmas 2003 by showing a woman giving birth on stage in the middle of a nativity play.

YouTube video thumbnail

It's exactly as bad as it sounds. While the woman was giving birth, an entire theatre of people sat in their seats and watched her. W e i r d.

Frankly, the last thing anyone wanted to do after watching it was eat mini cakes. So it's unsurprising that after almost 600 people complained, it only survived three TV showings before being swiftly taken off-air. 

'Tick-box diversity'

Some controversies are pretty unexpected, though.

Take Tesco’s Christmas ad last year, which attracted complaints simply for featuring a Muslim family.

Some viewers took issue with a non-Christian family being included in a Christmas scene. However, others accused the supermarket of hypocrisy and “tick box diversity” for featuring the family while not stocking halal turkeys.

Conversely, the backlash against the somewhat innocuous inclusion of the family meant that Tesco was later inundated with messages of support, with many praising them for fighting against outdated ideas of what Christmas means in Britain today.

World War One, aka 'please buy our stuff' 

Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad seemed guaranteed to be a success. It featured a re-enactment of the so-called Christmas truce of World War One, when soldiers from both sides called a temporary ceasefire to play a game of football.

Sainsburys TruceYouTube/Sainsbury's
People weren't comfortable with a supermarket evoking World War One to sell products

Heartwarming and historical - or so you’d think.

Soon after it was broadcast on TV, the complaints rolled in. The issue, it seemed, was that viewers didn’t think it was appropriate for a supermarket to be using the memory of fallen soldiers to promote sales of their products. Some even went as far as to call it "disrespectful" to those who suffered in the trenches in 1914.

There is such a thing as too sad...

If you Google the phrase 'world's saddest advert', we know what'll come up.

Edeka sadYouTube/Edeka
It's just too sad

In 2015, Edeka (again) released a Christmas ad that was the tearjerker to end all tearjerkers. It basically showed a lonely old man eating Christmas dinner by himself, year after year, while his grown-up kids called to cancel on him.

Eventually, driven by his intense loneliness, he fakes his own death - and when his children turn up for his funeral, he surprises them by having cooked Christmas dinner.

Loneliness is of course a very real problem for a lot of people, particularly around Christmas - but many thought the ad crossed a line. In fact, the ad was considered so "dark" that it made international headlines.

After all, nothing screams 'festive' like making everyone incredibly, incredibly sad. 

If nothing else, these ads are certainly memorable - whether that's despite the controversy or because of it. But the people behind Iceland's ad insist their own drama wasn't planned.

“Cross my heart and hope to die, we had no plans for this to happen,” Katie Mackay-Sinclair - a partner and head of strategy at Mother, the agency behind the ad - tells me. “This wasn’t a marketing masterstroke or a Machiavellian plan."

There's no denying that, often, controversies can be a blessing in disguise for brands if they ride the storm well. Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association, tells me this looks like it could turn out better than Iceland could ever have hoped.

“Clearly, this has all been a brilliant result for Iceland, and for Greenpeace, in a sense,” he says. “The ad might have had the same amount of views if it had run on air - it’s a very charming film and it makes an important point. But would it have got the kind of coverage it has in the last few days without this halo of being ‘banned’, which gets social media anger and righteousness behind it?”

Amanda Farmer, managing director at advertising agency VMLY&R, agrees the 'banned' tag has only bolstered Iceland’s views.

“In truth, the ‘controversy’ around the ad has got both Iceland and palm oil (and Greenpeace) way more attention than they would have had otherwise,” she says. “But as Clearcast have said, it’s not that the content is political, it’s that the ad ran for Greenpeace some months ago.”

She adds the TV ban is, ultimately, inconsequential for Iceland.

Rang TangYouTube/Iceland
The agency that created the ad insists it didn't know it would get barred from broadcast

“It doesn’t matter that Iceland’s Rang Tang ad won’t be broadcast on TV,” she explains. “It’s about the paradigm shift of living in a digital era, where people can share anything that they want extremely easily, and where nothing can [truly] be banned anymore.

“So far this Christmas, it’s the only ad anyone is talking about. The rest are just tinsel-based dross.”

Plus, there’s a reason why you’re here, reading about controversial and banned adverts, instead of looking at a list of, say, 'the world’s nicest Christmas ads'.

Heather Andrew, from Neuro-Insight, knows why. She conducts research into people’s brain signals when they’re viewing different stimuli - including different types of ads. She explains that controversial ads, if done carefully, can be more effective than a more conventional campaign.

“What you really want when you’re putting out an ad campaign is memory,” she tells me. “More than people enjoying the advert, you want people to remember the brand that’s associated with it. So the risk of doing those heartwarming-style ads, if you’re not John Lewis, is that those types of ads are now so closely associated with that store that viewers won’t realise it’s you. When they remember the ad later, they’re likely to mistakenly think it was made by John Lewis.

“When you give someone an ad that’s unexpected or shocking, however, it disrupts their brain signals - which also helps viewers associate an ad more closely with the brand. One of the most complained-about ad series for a long time has been the Moneysupermarket ads, because for whatever reason, people feel uncomfortable viewing them. But they’re still on air - and if someone says to you, ‘Man dancing in hot pants for a comparison site’, you’ll know which brand I’m talking about."

Which may explain why we end up with elves teabagging for pound shops, live childbirth in ads for cakes, and sausage-roll Jesus. 

So, as our TVs and computer screens get increasingly saturated, companies are going to try even harder to get our attention - to disrupt our brain signals, as it were.

Maybe controversial ads will soon become as much of a British tradition as the heartwarming ones? Only time will tell.

First published on 16 November 2018