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Iconic Adverts: What makes a magical Christmas ad?

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Christmas adverts spark anticipation, ignite our imaginations and prepare us for a month full of festivities. Brits eagerly await the first seasonal advert to drop, officially marking the beginning of the festive season and reminding us of the magic of Christmas.

However, as the Christmas ad category gets more and more saturated, it’s no longer enough to merely craft a Christmas themed advert – it must be iconic, evocative and unforgettable. So, what’s the secret?

Our process

Brands use Relative Insight to measure the effectiveness and impact of their advertising campaigns, to truly understand how concepts are received by the general public. In this special festive edition of our iconic ads series, we aim to uncover exactly what makes a magical Christmas advert.

To identify which Christmas ads have achieved iconic status, we conducted an open-ended survey asking respondents from the UK to name the festive campaigns that have made a memorable impact and why.

Our UK-based participants named John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Coca-Cola as producers of the four top Christmas ads of all time. Based on these responses, we collected YouTube comments and forum discussions around each campaign.

Next, we uploaded this qualitative data to Relative Insight, comparing comments around each individual advert to all others in the category. Relative Insight’s comparative approach to text analysis reveals powerful audience insights, enabling us to discover the key ingredients to an engaging and effective Christmas ad that stands out from the rest.

John Lewis, The Long Wait 

1. Don’t be afraid of a plot twist

The John Lewis Christmas advert is the most anticipated ad campaign of the year. However, one remains a firm favourite. Launched in 2011, The Long Wait sees a young boy anxiously awaiting Christmas day. But John Lewis steers away from cliché – the boy’s excitement stems from giving his parents their gift. The advert showcased the gift of giving, which viewers were 16x more likely to comment on. However, what captivated audiences was the plot twist, deemed simple yet heart-warming and enabling this ad to be fondly remembered.

“The best Christmas advert by far. It has a twist that transforms your whole understanding of the story. The twist happens right at the end. Its message is very heart warming.” YouTube

Sainsburys, 1914 

2. Draw on history and tell relatable stories

Marking 100 years since the start of the First World War, the Sainsbury’s 1914 advert recreates the Christmas day truce between British and German troops. Viewers discussed how the ad captured an extraordinary moment in human history, with phrases such as actually happened, true story and first world war appearing throughout their comments.

By drawing on history, this particular Sainsbury’s Christmas ad gave life to a story that only exists in the memories of soldiers. This memorable Christmas advert doesn’t mention any products that Sainsbury’s are trying to sell, rather they tell a story and make us relate to it.

“Beautiful ad showing a piece of history that should never be forgotten. The Christmas truce. Bless their souls, we salute you.” YouTube

3. Emotionally connect with audiences

When discussing Sainsbury’s Christmas campaign, audiences used emotive language such as crying, brave, moving and heart breaking. Viewers commented on the ad’s depiction of humanity, and how Christmas is a time of coming together. The Christmas ads we deem iconic are those which emotionally connect with audiences and strike a chord with people everywhere, leaving a lasting impression on viewers.

“A truly brilliant piece that pulls on your heart strings showing the best of humanity through the darkest hours 🙌” YouTube

Marks & Spencer, Mrs Claus

4. Play on the festive setting

Marks & Spencer’s Mrs Claus advert journeyed straight into the heart of Christmas. Audiences felt that the advert embraced the Christmas spirit, commenting on the realistic and festive backdrop of the North pole, reindeers and mince pies. M&S made the fiction of Christmas appear real, cementing this advert in the minds of viewers by sparking an element of belief – even in adults!

“There’s something so… real about this ad. This ad just makes you believe that this is what xmas eve in the north pole is really like! The sentiment is so lovely too, I love it all so much by far my favourite xmas ad of all time!” YouTube

Coca-Cola, Holidays are coming

5. Use a catchy jingle that evokes memories

Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…

Three words on that can make anyone – anywhere – think of Christmas time. Unsurprisingly, it’s hearing this classic song which viewers love about Coca-Cola’s holiday ad. In our analysis, we found that viewers were 13.3x more likely to mention listening to the song, as well as speaking about the childhood memories they associate with it. Christmas ads that achieve iconic status are those which make us feel a twang of nostalgia over the festive season.

“My childhood. I was 7 when this advert came out. Always makes me feel good and very nostalgic every Christmas. The best Christmas advert.” YouTube

Explore Relative Insight’s Iconic Adverts series to understand how brands from five different industries created advertising campaigns that stood the test of time.

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