John Lewis Edgar still_crop

OPINION20 December 2019

A very viral Christmas: how to win the race for engagement

Opinion Retail UK

What factors determine if a Christmas ad is shared, talked about and otherwise engaged with? Flamingo's Lucas Galan and Isabella Devereux take a look

Since the dawn of social media, the sign of a successful ad has largely been the extent to which it has been liked, shared and talked about online. This is especially true of Christmas ads, which are eagerly anticipated and critiqued each year.

Using a combination of applied data science, semiotics and a short online survey, Flamingo has explored what makes a Christmas ad go viral. We’ve looked broadly at the key ingredients, as well as pulling out some examples, including Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, M&S and Iceland, of why certain ads have (or haven’t) delivered a compelling message.

Good music and ‘cute characters’ most important

The short survey, answered by 102 UK residents, asked broad questions around how engaged people are with Christmas ads, what they think are the key elements of a good Christmas ad, and what brands or companies they most associate with this time of year.

While 31% of our survey respondents said they pay the same amount of attention to Christmas ads as ads throughout the rest of the year, 28% said they do pay more attention at Christmas. Fourteen per cent even said they actively look forward to Christmas ads (although 17% revealed that they dread them).

Responses to our survey also revealed that people think the most important element of a good Christmas ad is the soundtrack, followed by ‘cute characters’. So, it’s unsurprising that the survey also showed that the company most associated with Christmas ads is John Lewis.

The retailer has a long history of creating cute characters (often with associated merchandise) and reworkings of well-loved songs to accompany its ads. In second place was Coca-Cola, which is the brand partly responsible for modern representations of Santa Claus, but its recurring Holidays are Coming ad, with accompanying song, marks the start of the festive season for many.

But this is just the surface. Using applied data science techniques, we explored which ads, both current and historical, have generated most response. The charts reveal Twitter activity: both the number of individual tweets (blue line), and the number of retweets, replies and favourites (pink line); and the number of YouTube views (circular graphic). We also did some analysis of the language used, to identify what’s behind each ad’s popularity on Twitter and YouTube.

We have also analysed the ads semiotically to reveal the embedded cultural codes and meanings behind each advert.

Communities vs. characters

Some of our findings were perfectly in tune with what you’d expect: Christmas is a reflective time of year, when values of community and family resonate strongly. Themes of neighbours coming together (Sainsbury’s Mog, from 2015 ), putting national conflict aside in favour of common humanity (Sainsbury’s 1914 ad, 2014 ), reimagining traditional Christmas narratives (M&S Mrs Claus, 2016 ) and overcoming adversity together (John Lewis, Edgar the Dragon, 2019 ) all appeal to this sentiment and scored well in terms of engagement.


Sainsbury’s ad ‘1914’ ( 2014 ) drew on the mythologised story of a game of football that took place between opposing armies in the First World War. The ad reminds us that despite seemingly concrete lines of nation, conflict and politics, we have more in common with the ‘opposition’ than divides us. The Royal British Legion’s partnership with Sainsbury’s and continued repromotion of the video ties the appropriated myth to a concrete, optimistic grand narrative.

The social media data tells a story of generational difference. The solemn nature of this ad was less appealing to youngsters, which led to lower YouTube views (since this activity is primarily driven by younger audiences). This was paired with a strong number of Tweets, but with little social engagement beyond that. The association with the Royal British Legion did a lot to sustain social momentum throughout the initial three days of the campaign.

But community themes, while festive and uplifting, aren’t especially differentiating. Other trends we saw appealed more directly to our increasingly meme-fied society. In particular, cute CGI characters made for irresistible clickbait, creating a low barrier of entry for all those wishing to participate. Mog’s Christmas Calamity (Sainsbury’s 2014 ) delighted audiences, welcomed people to share cat pictures, and drove parents to hunt down the sold-out toys.

This sharing is evident in the data, which shows the extreme popularity of the ad on YouTube, likely driven by enthusiastic children watching and re-watching the ad. Meanwhile, Twitter activity was comparatively much lower, and was partly driven by the momentum of sharing cat pictures in honour of Mog.

John Lewis

The clickbait approach was also exploited by this year’s offering from John Lewis, Edgar, which takes the concept to the next level. Edgar’s endearing waddle, bright button eyes and sincere wish to fit in speaks to an earnestness and simplicity that leaves him open to sharing and appropriation. Anything even remotely associated to Edgar (a steaming car, a footballer spitting water, cold breath outside) has been enough to draw comparisons.

A huge number of brands have also already co-opted Edgar, from Arsenal’s ‘Excited Gunner’, HBO’s ‘real dragon’, and even Northumbria Police Mounted Section’s ‘horse trying to be Edgar’. These posts have created a community conversation between brands, using Edgar as their focus, ultimately increasing the touchpoints of the ad far beyond the John Lewis brand.

All of this plays out in the social media activity surrounding the John Lewis ad. The popularity of Edgar is seen in the initial spike of activity after the release of the ad. This momentum is then carried on as brands and influencers co-opt Edgar, or versions of Edgar, into their own ads.

But John Lewis’ message that you have to be useful to be accepted isn’t the sort of grand narrative that most communities aspire to, especially at Christmas. It’s simply the form of Edgar – loyal, cute, eager to please and, crucially, totally uncontroversial, that makes him the perfect subject for brands to layer in-jokes and new meanings on to.


Meanwhile Rang-tan, Iceland’s banned advert from last year, drove passionate engagement online thanks to its tackling of environmental issues. The ad, which was banned for being too political, is animated in soft watercolours and shows an orangutan seeking refuge in a girl’s bedroom after being driven from its home by profit chasing palm oil production. The ad finishes with a pledge by Iceland to remove palm oil from all of its own label products.

The online response to Iceland’s advert was categorically different to other Christmas ads from the past few years. Twitter users fervently celebrated Iceland, shared memes of applause and created a petition to get the ad back on TV, which gained one million signatures in its first 10 days.

The lack of availability of the ad itself drove low visibility on YouTube. Even so, a spike of social activity can be seen that is among the top recorded during this analysis.

The ad clearly spoke to a sense of accountability and advocacy in the global community. The fact that the advert was banned also reinforces the core of its message: the aggressive monochrome humans that destroy the Rang-tan’s home are the same powers who ultimately prevented this message being shared. Yet Iceland offers a material commitment to change, giving the viewer a simple way to make a difference.

Mrs Claus (M&S 2016 ) also delivered a wider message – albeit in a less prominent way – by insinuating that the real labour of Christmas is not done by a man in a red suit, but by women.

Ultimately, in an age where we feel increasingly uncomfortable with endless consumption, the best Christmas ads speak to the things that money can’t buy. They connect us when we feel disconnected and remind us that it is often the simplest things in life that are the most rewarding.

Ads that engage with these sorts of grand narratives may not garner as many clickbait views or shares, but they ultimately land a much more significant brand message than any number of cute CGI characters.

By Lucas Galan, head of applied data science, and Isabella Devereux, semiotician, Flamingo