It is that time of year again. As Downton Abbey reaches its series finale and this year’s hopefuls battle it out on X Factor, another seasonal TV event will take place: the Christmas advertisement for department store John Lewis.

The John Lewis Christmas ad, released on Friday, has become something of a British cultural moment, not just influencing the retailer’s sales.

One measure of this is impact of the ad — which in the past has featured an animated bear and hare, a little boy waiting for Christmas Day and Monty, a toy penguin that came to life — on the music charts, thanks to the department chain’s penchant for winsome cover versions of well-known songs.

But more broadly, the ads have shown the enduring power of ads to influence consumer behaviour and help a retailer stand out from its rivals in an era of increasing online shopping.

“Christmas ads have become a thing in themselves,” says Robert Jones, a visiting professor of brand leadership at the University of East Anglia. “They are a cultural event in their own right.”

The rise of online shopping, which accounts for about 13.5 per cent of UK retail sales according to AT Kearney, the consultancy, has changed the dynamics of demand.

Everything is available at the click of a mouse, or increasingly the touch of a smartphone. Price matching sites make the expense of Christmas presents almost completely transparent. And consumers can be in one retailer’s store, checking the price of a product on a rival’s website on their smartphone.

With so much spending commoditised, the Christmas ad has become one of the few ways retailers have to differentiate themselves from rivals.

“If you look on YouTube at Christmas ads from the 1980s, they are all very much about products; such and such perfume now £8.99, a Remington Razor for £20. Now you don’t have that at all,” says Neil Saunders, managing director of Conlumino, the retail research group. “The ads now are much more emotional. It is all about creating a connection with the retailer, and trying to make people trust it.”

But there is another important reason for Christmas ads: encouraging consumers to talk about the ad, and consequently the retailer, on social media.

Store groups are keen for their ads to be viewed on YouTube, as well as the television. J Sainsbury’s 2014 festive ad, recreating the truce between British and German soldiers on Christmas Day 1914, enjoyed 17.3m views on YouTube.

For the past few years, John Lewis has used social media to create “teasers” for its Christmas campaigns. According to communications company Hotwire, by Thursday, there had already been more than 2,000 mentions of the #onthemoon teaser hashtag for this year’s ad. Last year’s #montythepenguin generated almost 100,000 mentions within 24 hours of launch.

The two fairies featured in Marks and Spencer’s 2014 Christmas campaign had their own Twitter account, which was not branded as M&S. They carried out random acts of kindness, partly inspired by stories shared on Twitter.

M&S’s campaign this year will not only be digitally focused, but also designed to bolster customer loyalty. The 2m members of its new Sparks loyalty programme will be able to watch the first ad before it is debuted on social media or TV.

Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, marketing director, said the seven short ads in M&S’s campaign this year were “more box set than feature film blockbuster”.

According to Mr Jones, driving social media traffic has become one of the main targets of the Christmas ads.

“The TV spend is there to stimulate social media activity because people believe what they hear from their peers, rather than from the adverts. If you get people to talk about stuff, it has more authority than the company transmitting to an audience,” he says.

Retailers are also spinning off products from their ads, creating another reason to visit their stores — another useful footfall driver in the online world. John Lewis faced some criticism last year for selling a cuddly Monty the Penguin toy for £95.

“It is almost like creating a wider ecosystem around them,” says Mr Saunders. “That is what Christmas ads are about now.”

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