OPINION6 December 2016

‘Tis the season to be... happy!

Opinion Trends UK

Christmas has become in the UK what the Super Bowl is in the US – a time of year when a new ad can be a cultural event in its own right. Tom Ewing of BrainJuicer reveals what emotional triggers have been most effective this year. 

Waitrose robin crop

Christmas has become in the UK what the Super Bowl is in the US – a time of year when a new ad can be a cultural event in its own right.

As ever, retail brands led the way in 2016 with high-concept, high-budget spectacles from everyone from John Lewis to Aldi, but it’s also typical to see a number of other brands try to get in on the festive act. And in what’s becoming a tradition of our own, we at BrainJuicer tested as many Christmas ads as we could find for our FeelMore rankings, designed to find the most emotional (and hence effective) ads of the season.

In Britain, we love our Christmas ads so much that the winner at Christmas often ends up the winner of the year overall: the single most emotional UK ad of 2016. This also gives us a view on the trends for this year.

While Christmas ads tend to perform a little better than average, the British audience can be hard to please, and only three ads managed a strong 4-star rating on our 1 to 5 scale, with another six getting a solid 3-stars.

What do these high-performing ads – the ones that made people feel the most – tell us about Christmas ad trends? We put together a list of what’s IN and what’s OUT this year.


It’s been a tough year. The world political scene is unstable, beloved celebrities are dropping like flies, and prices are set to rise. Christmas represents a last chance for 2016 to deliver comfort rather than shocks, and the mood of this year’s emotional Christmas ads is cosy and good-natured.

Humour is the order of the day, with the strongest two ads – M&S’ “With Love From Mrs Claus” and John Lewis’ “Buster The Boxer” – both 4-star ads that aim to raise a smile. Importantly, the kind of humour that appeals at Christmas is gentle humour – edgy ads, or ones which seem to mock the season, tend to get a harsh reception.

Lower down on our list are solid 3-star ads which also use warm humour well – British Airways’ tale of bears negotiating an airport, and Amazon Prime’s story of a priest and imam finding something in common.


The return to humour as a winning formula means that ‘sadvertising’ takes a back seat. Tear-jerking epics about lonely children, lonely soldiers, or lonely lunar denizens have worked well in previous years but are thin on the ground this time.

Negative emotion can still pack a punch, though: Waitrose’s thrilling “Home For Christmas”, a 4-star ad about a robin battling to get back to his favourite bird table, is a rare example of an ad that uses fear well. The key with negative emotion is always to resolve it – Waitrose manage that with aplomb, and end on a peak of happiness.


Great advertising is a fantastic way to build up unique assets for a brand – slogans, logos, colours or characters that an audience can quickly and easily associate with you. One secret to John Lewis’ success has been the way it bridges the gap between ad and stores with merchandise around each year’s star. This year is no exception – its Buster The Boxer enjoyed a warm reception among our respondents.

But he’s not alone. Waitrose has its robin, both British Airways and Harrods showcase teddy bears, Barbour borrows The Snowman and Snowdog, and Aldi brings us the highly likeable Kevin The Carrot, all in 3-star or 4-star ads. The path between ad and merchandise is becoming increasingly well-trodden – but so far, it’s not turning viewers off.


Again reflecting the more light-hearted tone of this year’s ads, the charity and fund-raising elements have been toned down. It’s only two years ago that Sainsbury’s stole a lot of headlines with its powerful World War I set Christmas commercial. That tested fantastically well as a charity ad, but not quite so well as a commercial proposition – it’s a tricky balance to get right, and one the big ads are steering clear of this time.


With Brexit set to dominate the news for another year, advertisers are working out how to address our post-EU national identity. Patriotism and Britishness are a hot topic – but how to include them without seeming jingoistic? Christmas ads offer a great chance to celebrate tradition and catch the national mood. Harrods – a high 3-star ad – flew the flag with “A Very British Bear Tale”, and like British Airways it got a warm reception from our respondents. But the winner in this department is Waitrose, whose ad stars the British landscape itself – from its stormy coasts to the pine-martens of Scotland.


The most unusual Christmas-related ad of the previous year in fact came from Brazil – “Invisible Runners” was a pulse-pounding saga of real Rio binmen who find gifts of Mizuno trainers under a pile of rubbish. It’s an example of the “stuntvertising” trend – film real people in an unusual brand experience – applied to Christmas.

Stuntvertising and user-generate footage in ads was one of the big early 10s trends, but those techniques are mostly absent from this year’s winners. The closest example – Boots’ “Gift Of Beauty” giving ambulance workers a Christmas makeover – couldn’t quite get to 3 stars.

Instead, viewers had their hearts warmed by more fantastic stories, often stylishly animated, like Harrods’ bear story and Very.co.uk’s 3-Star “Get More Out Of Giving”.


And finally, the secret ingredient for an ad that makes you feel more this year seems to be the humble mince pie. Mince pies take starring roles in the M&S, the Waitrose and the Aldi ads – naturally, all three brands will be only too happy to help you out should their ads make you peckish. The mince pie is a good symbol for the overall mood of this year’s festive ads, though – something traditional, comforting, and unashamedly enjoyable.

Tom Ewing is senior director at BrainJuicer Labs