Tom Ewing of System1: will the ad that stole Christmas do any long-term good for Iceland?

For most of this decade, the interest around Christmas ads has centred on John Lewis and whether any of its retail rivals can match it. 2018 looked like it was going to be more of the same. Then came Rang-Tan.

Greenpeace and Iceland’s passionate ad about a cartoon Orang-Utan losing its habitat to palm oil exploitation has become one of those commercials that smash their way into the news – like Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad in September this year (an ad it has plenty in common with, as we’ll see). With 50 million views, acres of press, and a petition heading towards a million signatures asking for a reversal of Clearcast’s ‘ban’ on airing it, the Iceland ad has become the advertising story of the year.

Asking how effective it is seems almost rude. But we did anyway. At System1 we’ve tested more than 27,000 ads in the last 12 months, and we weren’t going to let a ban stop us. We were interested in three big questions. Would the Rang-Tan ad help Iceland over the long-term? Was its short-term impact predictable? And what was behind the colossal swell of support for the film?

The headline measure in our ad tests is the Star Rating, which predicts long-term growth. The key to that is positive emotional response. It’s been shown by the IPA, among others, that emotional ads are more likely to drive long-term profitability, and our validations show that happiness is the emotion most likely to do that. That’s the case even for charity brands, where more raw emotions might drive direct response but brand growth comes from a sense that the charity is succeeding and making the world better.

It’s a tricky balance to get right. The Rang-Tan ad fell strongly on the raw, negative emotion side of the scale – it ended up getting a 1-Star score for long-term effectiveness. In a way this makes sense – few of the millions joining the Ran-Tang clan particularly care about Iceland and the story has outgrown the brand. While the ad ends on a hopeful note, the dominant emotion is clearly sadness – almost 50 per cent of our panel felt this. While the huge publicity certainly hasn’t harmed Iceland, in the long-run it won’t change much in terms of market share.

Those same raw emotions, however, explain the immediate response. In the short term, it’s not positive emotion that matters, it’s the mix and movement of emotions in an ad. Iceland’s ad got only 1 out of 5 Stars, but 4 out of 5 – a very strong result – in our Spike Rating, which predicts short-term response.

That’s actually exactly the same ratio – weak sustained impact but very high immediate effect – we saw with the Nike Kaepernick ad. In that case, the churn of different emotions was created by intense disagreement over the issue Nike highlighted. In this, the negative emotions are the point. But both had the same galvanising effect.

The danger for traditional Christmas ads is that they feel feeble next to the emotional surge of Iceland’s campaign – whether or not it marks a turning point in sustainable consumption, or even does the brand much good. Rang-Tan may have called time on an entire way of advertising.

Tom Ewing is head of communications and market intelligence at System1 Research.

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