The festive season is the time of the year when agencies are expected to wave their creative wands and deliver advertising with an extra touch of magic. The trend arguably started in the UK about a decade ago, but now it seems almost everyone is entitled to their annual delivery of eye candy.
France is no different – and this year one of the country’s standout spots comes from Carrefour and Publicis Conseil. The commercial, “Letter to Santa Claus”, gets everything right in a delicate context: one of the strangest Christmas holidays in living memory. It combines scenes of genuine Carrefour employees ensuring that all the ingredients of the perfect celebration are delivered on time, with a parallel story about a little girl who worries how Santa will cope.
Marco Venturelli, president in charge of creativity at Publicis, comments: “Big Christmas campaigns are planned well in advance, although the script evolved with the situation. Back in the summer, we already had in mind the hypothesis that we might be back in lockdown, or just emerging from one. But it’s true that we had to make certain decisions just before the shoot: for instance, should we show masks or not? We wanted to be in synch with reality.”
The film had to strike a balance between evoking “the new normal” and keeping the spirit of Christmas. “Which this year is more important to us than ever, I think,” he adds.
The stakes were high for Carrefour too, as the spot was its first “group-wide” Christmas film, to be shown in seven countries. “Instead of making several different commercials, we decided to make one big Christmas film,” says Nathalie Jacquier, Carrefour’s strategic and brand marketing director, group and France. “For us it was an opportunity, a little in the style of Anglo-Saxon retailers, to offer a special gift to our customers around the world.”
It soon became clear that the film’s themes could not be divorced from responses to the pandemic. “It made the international aspect even more relevant, because as well as experiencing Christmas, this year we’re all going to be experiencing a very particular Christmas. We’re literally in this together, so the film has a universal resonance,” observes Nathalie.
She reveals the amusing detail that the Christmas dessert in a key scene was adapted for each country: in France we see a Christmas log, while viewers in other markets saw their own festive treat, such as a panettone in Italy or a turrón in Spain. “We wanted a film that was both global and local. Because although we’re everywhere, we’re close to our customers wherever we are.”
The commercial puts various aspects of Carrefour’s service – from fabrication, to warehouse, to store, to delivery – at the heart of the story. “I think during the first lockdown we all suddenly realised how important these jobs are,” says Marco. “We understood that there were hard-working people behind the services we once took for granted. So this is a way of celebrating them, too.”
“Customer service is our greatest brand value,” confirms Nathalie. “The fact that the crisis revealed to the public the men and women behind the scenes, as it were, allowed us to refine the brief. We were looking for an idea that everyone could relate to, so it became evident that we should pay a tribute to the staff who mobilised across every country concerned.”
The idea became more concrete when it was clear that the agency could shoot the film in France – which was by no means guaranteed at first. “Once we knew we could film here, it was obvious that we should use our own people, because we wanted authenticity. That’s also why you see them wearing masks,” Nathalie explains.
A great deal of the spot’s charm comes from well-observed human touches – notably a warehouse worker whose glasses steam up – which will strike a chord with viewers. Beyond the main “hero” spot, the workers also feature in a series of mini-films that allow them to express their personalities, providing an extra dimension of proximity. (There are also five spin-off films focusing on Carrefour products.)
Despite the fact that most of the “actors” were real Carrefour staff, there was still a casting call. “There are a few professional actors in the film,” says Marco, “but for the most part we wanted real employees, because the way they moved, the way they did their jobs, would give us the realism we wanted. After that, it was a case of seeing all the people who were available and making a selection, with the client and the director, to choose those who were perfect for each role.”
As more footage was shot than actually appears in the final version, the cast was even larger than it appears. As for the filming itself, it was done under strict health and safety regulations, with obligatory testing for cast and crew, plus masks and the now familiar barrier gestures. “We were very attentive to all those requirements,” reassures Marco.
Nathalie points out that while the written script for the film was relatively straightforward, it gained in entertainment value thanks to the sure touch of director Rudi Rosenberg, the colours and the lighting, and of course the enchanting music (“Planetarium” from La La Land).
So in the midst of these difficult times, what was the biggest challenge of the entire project? “Deciding whether Santa Claus should wear a mask or not,” says Marco. “It was a big debate.”
But in the end, Santa appears mask-free. “Because he’s magic.”
(interview by Mark Tungate)