The modern Christmas ad is deeply associated with John Lewis and its mega-successful formula of tear-jerking storytelling and thoughtful gifting. But that’s just one of several strategies retailers and other brands use to win hearts at Christmas time, observes Tom Ewing of System1 Group.

At System1, we’ve been testing every one of 2017’s Christmas ads, as soon as it’s released, using our emotional testing method. Each ad gets a 1- to 5-Star rating, with scores of 3-Stars and above indicating an ad that makes its audiences feel enough to drive profitable long-term growth for the brand. Every style of Christmas ad can hit this level, but some are definitely more successful than others.

THE ALED JONES: Animated extravaganzas

Jones’ “Walking In The Air” soundtracked the heartwarming adventures in Christmas TV classic The Snowman. That film lies at the root of every John Lewis ad, and all their many imitators. There’s pressure every year on retailers to come up with a great, tear-jerking family story, because when it works, this style of ad is superbly emotional. 

“Monty The Penguin” is the 5-Star high watermark of the genre: this year’s “Moz The Monster” was a strong 4-Star ad even if it didn’t hit that all time peak. Others are mastering the style, though – Very’s tale of a little girl and a wolf, and M&S’ seasonal Paddington saga both aimed for that cosy family vibe and also got 4-Stars.

THE SLADE: Kitchen sink jollity

Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everyone” invented the UK Christmas song, featuring British Christmas as it REALLY is. Less chestnuts on an open fire, more Granny hitting the sherry. That spirit of chaotic realism lives on in ads which try for a more authentic feel, usually splicing together footage of a bunch of families celebrating Christmas in their own eccentric ways.

The only problem is it doesn’t often make viewers feel good. The best example we’ve ever tested was Sainsbury’s “Christmas In One Day”, a 4-Star ad which knitted real footage intro a beautiful story. This year, Tesco’s story of turkey traumas and Talk Talk’s  montage of Christmas moments both took that approach, and Sainsbury’s itself married the cut-and-paste style to a new song. Viewers weren’t too impressed: Talk Talk’s ad only got 1-Star, though Tesco managed a respectable 3. But in general viewers want escapism at Christmas, not to be reminded of the chores and stress ahead, and this approach is high-risk.

THE WHAM: Heartwarming stories

As Wham’s “Last Christmas” reminds us, Christmas is a time for human drama as well as fairytale magic. Some brands don’t want much to do with cartoon elves and bears, so they make emotional films about people instead – a little more sophisticated but (in theory) packing just as much punch. For instance, Waitrose this year went for a spectacular snowy tale of people snowed in at a remote inn, and Vodafone have put together a series of ads showing Martin Freeman involved in a Christmas romance. These ads might get critical acclaim, but they don’t always resonate with the public – Vodafone’s effort could only get a mediocre 2-Stars.

THE ‘FEED THE WORLD’: Festive food-first

OK, Band Aid’s charity classic isn’t actually about Christmas dinner, but not many festive songs are. For advertisers, though – especially supermarkets – feasting is firmly on the agenda. It’s often the budget retailers which make adverts where Christmas food is the star, though there’s often a comic twist to keep viewers interested. This year, with household budgets stretched yet again, retailers have been especially imaginative. Aldi have used the animated Kevin the Carrot for a second year running, building up a creative Fluent Device and getting a 3-Star ad. Asda have blended product placement with magical invention with their imaginary Christmas factory – also 3-Star. And Lidl opted for a bit of comic observation with its portraits of different eating styles: its “Double Dipper” outraged some, but made enough people smile to cross the 3-Star boundary. All these product-centric ads have done well by adapting other styles, but it feels like there’s a natural 3-Star ceiling for a food-based commercial. We like Christmas food, but it doesn’t really move us.

THE POGUES: Christmas with a twist

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York” has become a Christmas favourite despite its bittersweet view of the season. “Merry Christmas my arse!” sings Kirsty, and every year at least one or two advertisers echo her, opting out of straightforward celebrations to show disastrous presents, ungrateful recipients, and the darkly comic side of the season. (This year Virgin Atlantic tried it, spotlighting unwanted gifts.)

Maximum points for creativity, minimum points for effect – too often these end up as 1-Star turkeys, as most people simply don’t want to be reminded of the crap side of Christmas. The only advertiser to score well with an edgy ad in recent years has been – of all people – Internet adult site Pornhub, who got a cheeky 4-Star success with a commercial showing an old man made happy by membership.

THE MARIAH: It’s party time!

Upbeat and in-your-face, Mariah Carey’s ‘”All I Want For Christmas Is You” represents the social side of the holiday season – the parties, the snogs, the dancing and pizzazz. Most years, we see a few ads which love to celebrate this, with glamour, choreography and spectacular visuals – high-end and fashion retailers specialise in it. 

So far in 2017, we’ve not seen much of it. We’re not sure whether this is the sign of a shaky economy, the shift of ad budgets online, or just acknowledgement of the fact these ads don’t often make people feel  much amidst all the razzle-dazzle. Keep an eye open for ads like this as we get to the last few shopping weeks of Christmas, though.

THE WIZZARD: Old festive friends

Some songs, like Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day”, are tacky, but so well-loved and familiar that Christmas wouldn’t feel like Christmas without them. So perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the most successful Christmas ads pull off a similar trick. They press our emotional buttons by giving us something familiar and satisfying, by using Distinctive Assets (the stuff that instantly brings that brand to mind) at the centre of their ads.

2017’s current top-scoring ad, a thirty-second spot for Toys’R’Us, is the only 5-Star commercial of the season so far, and while it won’t win any Cannes awards it hits the feel good spot with aplomb.

It’s got the iconic jingle, the familiar mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe, and a simple plot pivoting on the laugh-out-loud visual image of a giraffe pulling Santa’s sleigh. Coca-Cola does something similar with its Christmas trucks, ads which have achieved 5-Star results in previous years despite having run with only minor variations for 15 years.

So which of the seven styles is most successful? If what you’re looking for is media coverage and social media impact, the ‘Aled Jones’ – the John Lewis style animated epic – still takes the prize. But while John Lewis itself has an impressive track record of emotional high scores, its imitators haven’t always fared so well, and the pressure to come up with something new every year is immense.

The high scores for Toys’R’Us and Coca-Cola suggest that if you’re aiming for emotion that helps your brand long-term, you might also want to think about The ‘Wizzard’ – tapping into Christmas tradition by finding and using a brand’s familiar Distinctive Assets. And maybe go a step further, and make them into what we call a Fluent Device – an asset that’s the centre of the storytelling drama. Then you end up with the best of both worlds – you get to have your emotional Christmas pud, and eat it.

Tom Ewing is presenting a WARC webinar next month. Sign up here to hear him talk about Fluent Devices and the Forgotten Art of Memorability.