Canada: An oral history of Sobeys’ ‘Star of Christmas’ holiday commercial

 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the Christmas TV jingle that was instantly recognizable to people across the Maritimes:

Days of Christmas now are here
Everyone is full of cheer
It’s the very best time of the year…

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The 1987 commercial celebrated «Sobeys’ festive touch,» and became so popular that the grocery chain aired it year after year before moving on to a new Christmas campaign in the 1990s.

But none of the subsequent commercials became as ingrained with Maritimers’ holiday memories. In the years since, the «Star of Christmas» ad has been named one of the best Canadian holiday commercials again and again.

For their upcoming holiday ad campaign, Sobeys is resurrecting the song and invited those who made the original to take part in filming this week in Moncton.

As the song makes its return to the airwaves, we spoke to the people behind the iconic ad.

Creating a new Christmas carol

Bob Quinn: I was the composer for Sobeys music for 14 years. I was directed to write a piece of music that would celebrate the joy of Christmas in the community. It was a bit of a challenge — I delivered it and Ian [MacKenzie, Sobeys director of marketing], my good buddy, said ‘You can do better. It’s not universal enough, back to the drawing board.’

I always say lead the heart and the mind will follow. Right off the bat, I thought ‘You know, there’s something in all of us that responds to Christmastime, and the hope and the peace and the joy.’ [We were] trying to get that into something that wasn’t too hokey and used repetition.

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Cynthia Kennedy: My friend Bob Quinn had written this lovely jingle for Christmas at Sobeys and he telephones me and said ‘Cynthia I need some kids to sing on this jingle.’

At the time I was teaching at St. Agnes School [in Halifax], and it was a Primary-to-Grade 9 school then and the children in the choir were Grades 4, 5, 6. He said, ‘You got any kids?’ ‘Pff, I’ve got kids for you.’

Making the comercial

Simon Naylor: I’m in the very first shot. I’m the boy with the red hat and the red and grey snowsuit and there are actors playing my sister and my grandfather. I’m pulling the tree in the door and I fall on my butt. The first time I fell by mistake and the director liked it so he asked me to do it again. I’d say they didn’t use the best take of me falling down!

I would have been in Grade 2, seven or eight years old at the time. We were in Cowie Hill and it was probably September or early October. The snow outside was styrofoam, it was my first experience with fake snow.

Terry Fulmer, director: We were just this side of totally sentimental—I think we skirted that quite well. The one outstanding picture for me is the little girl with no front teeth in the front row [of the choir] singing her heart out. We didn’t know that [moment] was there until it was shot at the Queen Elizabeth High School auditorium. There she was—she knew the song, she believed in it. It was really quite spectacular.

Cynthia Kennedy: They were filmed with the old-fashioned movie cameras, which were dragged right across in front of [the choir] that day, and I said to them, ‘Look guys. You can’t look at those cameras. You have to look right through them.’

I was never supposed to be in the shots and then the director/producer says, ‘We’ve got to get this gal in the shots. She needs to be in there, so come back tomorrow with a dress.’

A Christmas fixture in the Maritimes

Bahia Makhoul, who sang in the choir: The commercial kept playing year after year and I didn’t really think too much about that until we were in high school and people would talk to me. ‘Are you in the Sobeys commercial?’ I started to think, ‘Wow, they’ve been using this commercial every year and all we did was go in and sing.’

Simon Naylor: I used my paycheque from the commercial to buy a Masters of the Universe playset called Eternia which was the biggest, most expensive He-Man playset there was at that time. To me, it was the greatest thing in the world to spend my hard-earned money on. I think it was about $175 at the time. For a kid in Grade 2, that’s a lot of money.

The team behind the camera

Bob Quinn: We had a small core of people. Clary Flemming was the voice of Sobeys for many years, he’s got a wonderful voice. Barry Cowling was the writer of the piece and Terry Fulmer was the director. At the time, the whole creative team for Sobeys was small enough that we basically made decisions that we were all in line with, and it was easy to bring it all together in a successful way.

Terry Fulmer: They spent a lot of money, even compared to today’s budgets. Don’t ask me what the budget was because I can’t remember for the life of me. In those days, Sobeys was the number-one advertiser in Atlantic Canada. That ad would be on nine times in an evening on CTV.

Bob Quinn: There wasn’t too much [corporate] intrusion, saying ‘Hey, we’re not hitting the 25-year-olds’ or things like that. It was more, ‘Does this feel right?’ Emotion was always carrying the day for us back then.

Why did it resonate?

Simon Naylor: The song was well-written, it was catchy, the commercial had different elements people could identify with. It felt authentic to people in the Maritimes. I used to teach kids in Korea and they all thought it was great. It kind of represents the Canadian Christmas, a real Christmas tree and snow which other countries don’t have.

Bahia Makhoul: There was something nostalgic about it. It was like you knew it was Christmastime when they started playing the Sobeys commercial.

Terry Fulmer: Someone told me there was a marketing professor in Texas [who] told students, ‘This is the kind of ad from when companies thought more about their image than the retail stuff.’ He would show it as an example of when advertising was better than just pushing product, product, product.

Why they stopped airing it, and then brought it back

Bob Quinn: Sobeys went through quite a transition about 10 years ago when they started expanding nationally, and corporate thinking came into it and pushed out the family thinking. They changed their style after that to be more competitive with Superstore and other brands out west. I call [the 1980s] the glory days of growth because the name went from a small-town Stellarton thing to all across the Atlantic provinces and then they expanded to a national brand.

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A few years ago, when the piece was no longer on air, I used to get a lot of emails from genuine fans asking when the piece was coming back. I would pass that on to corporate, but I don’t think they were aware in Ontario that it had such an impact on Atlantic audiences. But someone must have spoken to somebody.

Cynthia Kennedy: [Sobeys] called me two weeks ago to say, ‘We’re looking for the lady who did the original choir thingy with the students for the Sobeys commercial.’ I said, ‘You got ‘er!’ They said, ‘We’d like you to be in it.’ I’m really really thrilled to be part of it. It sounds like a wonderful project. They’re really sticking with the sentimentality and the niceness of it.

Bahia Makhoul: When I was driving up [to Moncton] I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to see Ms. Cynthia Kennedy again.’ I’m looking forward to giving her a hug. I just would love to see her and give her a hug. It’s going to bring back memories for sure. I’m feeling a little bit excited. like My inner child kind of coming out. It’s ready to play, let’s have fun.

Source: CBC.ca 

 

 

 

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