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The five biggest Christmas adverts of 2016 analysed by a neuroscientist

The scale, budget and impact of Christmas ads has grown to an epic level over the past decade. The premieres are talked about with the magnitude of Hollywood films, and nowadays come with the attached pressure on directors, creatives and advertising agencies to deliver something memorable, emotive, and better than the competition. As a result they are using all sorts of analysis to predict the success of their creative routes – even neuroscience.

One such company offering advice on this subject is Neuro-Insight, which has worked with brands such as Google and Unilever to apply neuroscience research to strategy and marketing, assessing emotional impact, memory encoding and audience engagement. Here, the company’s UK CEO Heather Andrew analyses five of the biggest ads of this festive season by John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, H&M, Intu and Aldi, offering her opinion on whether the creative is a cracker or a turkey.

John Lewis: #BounceBounce

John Lewis shifted gears for 2016, drawing on a cast of CGI wildlife to lift the mood from some melancholic offerings of previous years. That was a safe bet – it’s no secret that pets and wildlife will find a place in most viewers’ hearts. Sure enough, previous research shows that animals trigger more positive emotions at end branding, a crucial moment for brands to convey exactly who is behind the message.

However, the winning element in this ad is its use of pattern and intrigue, created by teasing out the story with clues – bouncing on the bed, trampoline construction, and Buster nodding along throughout – that keep the brain engaged in the story until the end punchline.
The ad also features lots of close interaction between characters. This was missing from John Lewis’ 2015 Man on the moon, but it’s important. Those moments create a strong sense of personal relevance for our brains, driving greater engagement through those scenes.
With strong incentives for the brain to file key elements of the ad into memory and a setting that people can relate to and enjoy, this is a hit in my opinion.

Sainsbury’s: The Greatest Gift

The bright colours and detailed visuals of this piece make it a stimulating watch. Synchronised song lyrics with the on-screen action ensures that the two creative components reinforce each other and help highlight developments in the narrative. The lyrics also create a rhythm that ‘guide’ the brain through the narrative; once a pattern (such as a rhyme) is established in the narrative, our brains will expect and even try to “guess” which word will come next, keeping us engaged until the end of the song.

However, ending the song on a final rhyme, right before the end branding moment, could set Sainsbury’s up for a fall. This is due to ‘conceptual closure’ – the point at which the brain registers an end to the action, and stops taking on more information as it processes everything it’s just experienced. As a result, that end branding moment could actually be missed by viewers. This ad is very likely to be a success, however there is a chance that end branding may be missed – if impacted by conceptual closure.

H&M: Come Together

H&M’s mini-feature-film plots a clear, linear narrative. It’s made up of developments that are likely to drive strong memory encoding: each new event is essential to our understanding of the story, which provides an incentive for the brain to file it all away into memory. Smart branding also makes the H&M brand impossible to miss: the brand is cleverly tagged onto the train, which is intrinsic to the story. It’s a smart decision that avoids overly salesy messaging which might cause our subconscious to ‘block’ branded messages.

Emotionally, the story is a great example of problem/solution construct, where a negative situation (train delays, of course!) is set up but a happy outcome results. This structure usually triggers a very positive emotional response at resolution point. As with John Lewis’ ad, close interactions when people ‘come together’ at the resolution is likely to strengthen engagement, and helps highlight the link with the tag line – altogether the end scene is a very strong moment to lead into end branding. It’s almost certainly a hit for H&M.

Intu: Christmas 2016

This ad portrays a collection of vignettes which weave in implicit brand cues, in the form of bird puppets, throughout. This narrative is relatively elaborate: there are the many bird vignettes linked to the voiced poem, but being able to see the puppeteers adds a layer of complexity to the story. As a result, the ad might trigger high levels of visual processing to prioritise the visual information, rather than simply taking it in. However, use of rhymes and rhythms is a benefit, and in this case the final rhyme is the name of the brand. Therefore, if the brain is following the ‘poem’, it will pick up the brand.

The big concern here is visual overload – the scenes could be too intricate to drive strong memory encoding throughout. In fact, those puppeteers in the background may actually put us off: the brain is naturally sensitive to seeing disembodied body parts, and so might have a negative response to those scenes. On the whole, I’d say this ad is probably a bit of a turkey.

Aldi: Kevin the carrot

2016 has certainly brought out the copywriters’ rhyme books, with Aldi rounding off our selection with another poem-led spot. As well as the benefit of rhythm and rhyme, and a recognisable structure, the narrative is straightforward, with clear developments that are likely to drive memory response throughout. However, a possible weakness is that, visually, the conclusion of the story happens earlier than in the poem: the point where we see that the carrot has been used by Santa Claus to make the deer go faster could act as an ‘ah-ha’ moment, and trigger conceptual closure right before end branding.

The next visuals of the sleigh travelling off-screen could reinforce the sense that the ad is over, causing brain response to drop before Aldi’s end branding is revealed. Similarly to the Sainsbury’s ad, the Aldi ad is very likely to be a hit, but could be impacted by conceptual closure before end branding.

This year’s Christmas crop shows us how important a great narrative is to engage viewers, but also that to be effective these carefully crafted stories must be clearly linked back to the brand itself. Sainsbury’s and Aldi were two clear examples of creative work which risked missing the mark with their branding, while John Lewis stands out with its execution.

One reason why the retailer seems to continually hit the right notes with its advertising is that it now effectively ‘owns’ emotive Christmas advertising. Those wishing to emulate John Lewis’ successes will need their branding to work harder to achieve the results they need, otherwise their campaigns may go unrecognised, or worse, attributed to the wrong business.