American holiday ads are a lesson in diversity; diversity of holiday, from Thanksgiving to Hannukah to Christmas itself; diversity of approach, from heartwarming storytelling ads to beloved perennials like Hershey’s ‘Bells’ and Coke’s ‘Holidays Are Coming’; and of course, diversity of Americans, with holiday ads a great opportunity to show the nation’s melting pot in all its varied glory.

Because of this diversity, it’s unusual for the best performing ads to display much in the way of unifying themes, but System1’s annual analysis of the most effective US holiday ads suggests more consistent messaging around the holiday season than usual. In a high-inflation economy, this year’s US holiday ads have dialed back the glitz and emphasized the simple pleasures of friendship, thoughtful gifting and coming together.

System1’s method measures emotional response to predict the long- and short-term effectiveness of ads. It awards each ad a 1- to 5-Star rating. Only 1% of ads hit the top, 5-Star score, which indicates exceptional potential for an ad to drive brand growth. Typically, at Christmas, brands dial down the hard sell and adopt more emotional, audience-pleasing strategies, so we see more 5-Star ads than usual. Both the Hershey’s and Coke ads get 5-Stars every year we test them, for instance.

New 5-Star ads from Wegmans, Hobby Lobby and Duracell

This year has already brought us three new 5-Star commercials, from Wegmans, Hobby Lobby and Duracell. None of the ads emphasize expensive celebrations or big parties – instead Wegmans and Hobby Lobby tell quiet stories of unusual friendships, and Duracell focuses on poignant family moments.

In the Wegmans ad, we follow a young boy who at first seems to be struggling to organize a merry Christmas all by himself – clearing leaves and snow from the yard, putting up lights and other holiday chores. It turns out he’s doing it all for his infirm, elderly neighbor who can’t manage it herself. The reveal comes as he brings the older woman a plate with a serving of a holiday roast dinner. It’s a charming ad, and while Wegmans’ festive food gets a supporting role, the star is very much the cross-generational friendship. The ad has scored best of any US one we’ve seen this year, managing a 5.8-Star rating, just below the maximum 5.9-Star rating.

The ad works so well because it includes several elements we know make ads better at winning attention and more effective at creating positive impressions of a brand. The main thing it gets right is emphasizing human ‘between-ness’ – dialogue, gestures and expressions between people which make an ad feel more vivid and emotionally impactful.

Hobby Lobby’s holiday ad also hits those notes – it’s a wordless but deftly told story of two young girls who try their hand at being holiday entrepreneurs, setting up cocoa stands at a Christmas tree farm. One uses Hobby Lobby goods to decorate her stand, and her marketing prowess wins her customers and leaves her rival feeling sad. To cheer her up, the successful seller gets the bright idea of pivoting to solely selling marshmallows to complement the other girl’s cocoa. Soon both stands are looking great and the two are firm friends. The ad scored an exceptional 5.3-Stars and it’s notable for being a commercial which puts the product at its center without compromising at all on its storytelling.

Not all effective holiday ads need to tell stories, of course.   is a montage of holiday home movies, making the point that the magic of childhood Christmas is something parents can create and preserve with the batteries that power so many toys and gifts. It’s a simple, direct message whose effectiveness rests on its understanding of how precocious those early Christmas moments are to kids and parents alike.

What these three, highly effective ads have in common is an emphasis on the intimate sides of the holidays – family time and firm friendships, not shopping, big parties or even holiday icons like reindeer, elves or Santa. The ads which just missed 5-Star ratings continue this trend. In the past, Macy’s Christmas ads have often been flights of storytelling fantasy, but this year its 4.7-Star ad dialed things right back. It shows the moment between someone opening a gift and their reaction to it – will they love it or hate it? (Spoiler: they love it!) It’s an ad that’s pure between-ness, and by focusing on a single, very human moment, Macy’s is fitting right in with the warm, personal tone of 2022’s holiday marketing.

Why are lower-key ads doing so well this year? It’s hard not to point to the world outside marketing as a major factor. The economy’s still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and inflation and war overseas have cast a grim shadow over everyday life, especially from a consumer perspective. It’s not too surprising the focus has been on people over partying, and marketers have bet that this year people are dreaming of a quiet Christmas. Judging by the excellent response to 2022’s ads, it’s a bet that will pay off.