Why giving Santa COVID backfired for this organisation
Source. YouTube screenshot
I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus.
So goes the line from the famous song, of the same name, sung by the Jackson Five amongst others.
The song may not have been such a hit if they sang;
I saw Mommy killing Santa Claus.
Father Christmas is beloved by children around the world. He brings joy and happiness each year to all those who have been nice (and some who have been naughty). There would be few people who would want to kill Saint Nick. Or see him close to death.
Except perhaps the National Health Service (NHS) of the United Kingdom. Just when I thought 2020 couldn’t offer up any more surprises the NHS make a late bid for the worst advertisement of 2020. And succeed.
A Not So Festive Spot
It was the first time that NHS had launched a Christmas campaign for its Charities Together project. The brief given to the digital advertising agency, Iris, was to “highlight the ongoing commitment and hard work of NHS staff and volunteers to keep us safe and well in what has been and continues to be a really challenging time for the NHS.”
They wanted to encourage the public to show their appreciation for overworked staff, who like all health workers, have had a year from hell. It’s a great sentiment and a message that should be spread.
The way the media agency decided to tackle this was ill-conceived. The ad featured a sick Santa in an oxygen mask being rushed to hospital appearing to be close to death from COVID. The great staff at the NHS take care of him, and Santa recovers. After leaving the hospital and waving goodbye to the medics who helped to save him, the advert ends with the nurse receiving a present which reads: “Thank you for everything you’ve done for all of us, Santa.”
The thinking behind the creative was to highlight the positive work of the NHS staff and act as a form of tribute to their dedication in 2020. Instead, they got a very negative reaction to the one they were hoping for.
As soon as the ad was launched, there was a swift and brutal backlash on social media calling the commercial “shameful” and “the worst form of emotional blackmail.” In a year when many have suffered from mental health problems, there was a concern about the impact this could have on children.
The United Kingdom had just gone into another lockdown, and this ad seemed to exacerbate community anxiety ahead of what is traditionally a festive period.
As the backlash continued for a few days, the NHS was forced to remove the advertisement from all channels. They also issued an apology of sorts. I say of sorts as they diminished their remorse by adding that the ad “isn’t aimed at children and hasn’t been shown on TV.” As if that made it OK.
“We worked closely with the team behind the ad to make sure it was produced responsibly, and it was cleared for use by the relevant regulatory authority. However, we are sorry to the parents of any young children who have been upset by watching the ad and to the young children themselves; they were not the intended audience for it.”
Does this make it worse for the NHS? The fact they worked closely with the agency and clearly approved of the concept. Did they think that showing a sick and close to death Santa Claus would be positive and uplifting? And in an age where every child has a phone, and a tablet, did they think that by omitting the advertisement from TV broadcast, children wouldn’t see it?
The original ad has been pulled, but you can see a copy of it here and see how much they missed the mark.
The now-iconic image of Santa as a jolly fat man in a red suit with a giant beard was created by artist Fred Mizen for Coca-Cola and has featured in Coke advertising for over 100 years.
While Coke generally gets it right with its use of Santa, there are a few other examples of brands misusing Santa in their advertising. Perhaps none as traumatic as the NHS, but it would be remiss of me not to showcase a few more.
It’s cold at the North Pole. And delivering a sleigh load of presents to people across the world is tiring. No wonder Santa needs a drink to get through it. And his beverage of choice was apparently the French aperitif, Byrrh.
Mojud, in an attempt to sell stockings, used a rather happy Santa in this advertisement from the 1950s. Perhaps he was hoping the lady was both naughty and nice.
Before being banned, tobacco ads used anyone and everyone to sell their product. Doctors were common; even babies were used. So it’s no surprise that Santa was featured in several ads with a cigarette in hand. A Google search will show how fond he is of smoking and how many brands he “represented.”
A word of advice to all marketers, advertisers, and creators. Stick with the image of Santa that is loved by all — happy, jolly, and fun. It sure will help the product you are trying to sell. And despite the abysmal failure of the NHS on this occasion, I hope the people of the UK do show their support and pride in their efforts.
Ho ho ho.