OPINION11 November 2015

Has sadvertising had its day?

Media Opinion Trends

Emotional advertising is better at building long-term brand awareness than message-based ads but has the trend for sad Christmas TV advertising, epitomised by John Lewis, run its course asks BrainJuicer’s Tom Ewing.


The John Lewis Christmas ad has become a British institution, and like most British institutions it has its share of resenters. This year’s ad, a tie-up with Age UK focusing on a lonely man on the moon, attracted the usual online spoofs, pastiches and mockery – some affectionate, some not. But much of the commentary has struck a more sombre note about Christmas advertising in general – are we all cried out? How much emotion is too much?

It’s very hard to deny the prominence of emotional advertising right now – from John Lewis leading the Christmas parade, through the highly shareable campaigns with a conscience of Dove and Always, to the mega-budget glitz of the US Super Bowl. But commentators are split on what it means. Some welcome the fact that after years of product- and message-focused spots, advertisers are happy to touch the heart. Others believe ‘sadvertising’ is a bubble, and a recession-hardened, deal-driven audience will want advertising to get back to brass tacks soon enough.

Much evidence points to the first of these theories being correct. In 2007, in ‘Marketing In The Era Of Accountability’, Les Binet and Peter Field crunched the IPA case study database to reveal that emotional campaigns had a far higher chance of creating large business effects and building brand fame than those which relied on messages. In 2013, in ‘The Long And The Short Of It’, they did it again to show that in the long term, the effect was even more pronounced. If you feel nothing, you do nothing. Emotion drives ad success.

But there’s more than one way to get emotional. And here is where the sadvertising sceptics have a point. Emotion is your best bet for an effective ad, but there are endless routes to making people feel good, and eventually, sentimentality will lose its lustre. Look back on the great advertising of the past, and you’ll find comedy, surrealism, schadenfreude, patriotism, and sheer energy all taking their turn to make people feel something instead of nothing.

So in the end, the sentimental style will play itself out. The question is, when? Every year we test hundreds of ads worldwide for emotional effectiveness, to fill our annual FeelMore50 list of the most emotional commercials. Last year, John Lewis’ Monty The Penguin wasn’t just the most emotional Christmas ad, it was a 5-star success that topped the UK rankings for the entire of 2014. Other ads tried the sentimental route, but none of them came near.

With Christmas ads still rolling out, this year’s results are still coming in – but one thing is already clear – 2015 has not been a vintage year for emotional UK ads. We’ve tested dozens, and a few have scored well. But mostly, audiences just aren’t feeling it.

There are two ways of looking at this. One is that UK consumers are indeed burning out on emotion – though the rest of the world is delivering the tears and laughter just fine. The other is that British marketers are ahead of their market – looking for the next thing after sentimentality, but not quite making a connection yet.

You can see some of this uncertainty in the new crop of Christmas ads. After a few years where brands tried – and largely failed – to match John Lewis for potency and publicity through storytelling, it’s obvious the big names are casting around for new angles.

Tesco’s hapless family of shoppers are aiming for comedy. Lidl’s ‘School Of Christmas’ wants laughs too, but focuses on the labour of getting Christmas right. It’s an angle it shares with Waitrose’s preparation-heavy spot about getting parties just right. Duracell has a Star Wars tie-in, Oddbins a surreal fox. And Argos’ high-energy snowboarding ad is another going for an explicit break with sentimental stories, looking for emotion in action.

Will any of these succeed? Results – and research – will tell. The urge to do something different seems to be rising in adland, but sentimentality may have more staying power than hip marketers would like.

After all, the rest of British mass culture, from Adele to Bake Off, isn’t exactly afraid of big feelings. Eventually though, the style of emotion will change, but feeling itself will continue to drive marketing.

And the payoffs for a classic ad are sizeable – the Coca-Cola trucks commercials, essentially the same year on year and instantly recognisable, still hit people’s emotional buttons hard. It’s established a distinctive association with Christmas itself, and unlike the hard-working families in this year’s ads, it makes people happy without really doing much.

Tom Ewing is senior director BrainJuicer Labs