Giles Keeble: why emotional ads work at Christmas – and it’s not all about sales

Why are you advertising?

When I asked this question on advertising courses for marketing people, I was surprised how little thought it was given. The head of research at one multinational was quite clear it was to increase sales, and seemed unable to understand that while that is the ultimate objective it is rarely the role of the advertising itself, which could be anything from reminding users, to justifying a higher price, to telling them something new.

I have mentioned previously Stephen King’s useful Scale of Immediacy. The most direct response is ‘I’ll do that now’, which applies to direct response advertising but not to most of the brands ad agencies deal with. Then there is ‘Tell me more’, ‘What a good idea’, ‘That reminds me’, ‘Really?’ and ‘I always knew I was right’.

I raise this again as I was struck by an article about the Christmas ads now upon us which quoted Waitrose’s Rupert Thomas saying “Ultimately advertising is about sales…the most important thing is, has Waitrose had a good Christmas.” Ultimately that is right, but Waitrose’s ad – along with many other Xmas offerings- is, in the words of Bryan Roberts from Kantor, part of a heart-race to see “who can out-emote each other.”

The Waitrose creative director has said Xmas ads are our ‘Super Bowl’ -and like the Super Bowl spots, not all of them are any good. I’m not entering here into which is best, and whether or not this year’s John Lewis or Sainsbury’s TVC is better than the previous ones. I’m interested in the clear belief that emotional advertising can work- that is, ultimately lead to sales. From the Scale of Immediacy, I’d say they work in the ‘That reminds me’ and ‘I always knew I was right’ areas.

Of course, these TVCs are accompanied by lots of support work- the sort of ideas we would present in pitches in the past but were hardly ever realised: Mog’s creator has written a special accompanying story; I’m sure John Lewis is doing something with telescopes and cheese. So there seems to be an understanding that different channels have different roles.

As advertising spokesperson Rory Sutherland trots out, “It’s about likeability” – people buy from brands they like and trust, something I often used to hear Ron Collins say years ago. The work done by Les Binet and Peter Field for Thinkbox on the IPA Effectiveness winners underlines this point: in the long run, likeability is a more profitable approach than short-term sales messages (which do work in the short term).

I recently read a review of Steve Hilton’s book More Human in which he criticises the ‘prioritisation of numbers over people’. It brings to mind David Boyle’s book The Tyranny of Numbers and a line I cannot attribute that it is often better to be roughly right than precisely wrong. Nevertheless, with all the research methods now available, it would seem that the John Lewises and Sainsbury’s of the world are successfully combining people and numbers to produce emotional advertising that ultimately leads to sales. But maybe this works because it is on air at a time of de rigeur happiness, and care is needed: will someone do a ‘Bah Humbug’ ad next year? Some people may hope so.

I wish any of you reading this, in between tweeting your favourite Christmas ad, a very Emotional Christmas.

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About Giles Keeble

Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.