Orlando Wood of System1: what the big Christmas ads tell us about ad effectiveness

Christmas is to UK adland what the Super Bowl is to the US; big brands, big budgets, and the once-a-year feeling that the press (and maybe even the public) cares about what it makes. Brands spend big at Christmas, but the festive season brings changes not just in spend, but in advertising style.

This is a time when brands drop their fear of sentimentality, nostalgia and story-telling, and, by and large, give the public the advertising it likes; the type of advertising that also attracts its attention.

Every advertiser should be interested in attention. In Lemon, I seek to explain the relationship between the two hemispheres of the brain and the type of attention they each bring to hear on the world. Comprehensive study by psychiatrist and neuropsychologist Iain McGilchrist shows us that the right brain is broad and vigilant in its attention, and open to novelty, contradiction and ambiguity. This helps it to understand metaphor and humour.

The right brain understands people and gives us our sense of empathy; it’s also responsible for our sense of time and spatial depth. It sees the world as it really is. The left-brain has a narrower, more focused and goal-orientated take on the world. It abstracts things from their context and seeks to control the world through categorisation, tools, language, representations and mental models. It sees objects as flat, can’t deal with ambiguity, devitalises the living and breaks things up into smaller parts. We need both brain hemispheres for great creative leaps.

The attentional priorities of people and societies leave traces in culture. They can also be discerned in advertising. For example, an ad featuring implicit communication between people (a nod, a wink, a gesture), acted out in lived time, betrays the right brain’s attentional preferences. A unilateral (‘me-at-you’) ad – featuring monologues, voiceovers or words superimposed on images, telling the viewer what to think and do – is created by and for the left brain’s attentional preferences. It’s the difference between a drama and a lecture.

Lemon reveals that it is the right-brained features in advertising that drive an emotional response in audiences. It is these that advertisers need to play to if they want to increase their market share. These are what will get your ad noticed and remembered.

The problem is that there was a sharp change in advertising style in 2006, away from right-brained work. Dramas cost more money than lectures and they don’t travel as easily. The result has been falling advertising effectiveness ever since.

Christmas is now perhaps the last vestige of right-brained advertising in the UK.

So what can we learn from 2019’s Christmas ads?

We ran this year’s ads through our Ad Ratings system, which establishes emotional response to advertising and therefore its ability to drive market share growth over the long-term, expressed as 1-5 Star rating. The approach also indicates the likely short-term sales spike that will be achieved by an ad.

The good news is that this year’s is the highest-scoring set since we began testing and the Star ratings well exceed the typical distribution of scores you see across the rest of the year. Here is our definitive top 10, based on the Star rating – our long-term brand building measure:


John Lewis and Partners/Waitrose and Partners – “Excitable Edgar”
Amazon – “Everybody Needs Somebody”
Joules – “Christmas At The Click Of A Button”

Sky – “A Holiday Reunion”
Coca-Cola – “Holidays Are Coming 2019”
Disney – “A Disney Christmas 2019”
Tesco – “#deliveringchristmas”
Argos – “The Book Of Dreams”
Cadbury’s – “Secret Santa 2019”
McDonalds – “Reindeer Ready 2019”

What are these ads doing to achieve this? In short, they are playing to the right-brain’s attentional preferences.

Tradition and nostalgia are two themes that run through the top 10 ads. Four continue themes introduced by previous Christmas campaigns – like Coke’s classic “Holidays Are Coming!”. And five more play with nostalgia or draw on cultural references, like Joules’ use of much-loved characters Wallace and Gromit. In many of the ads we see a scene unfolding (the right brain is what gives us our sense of ‘lived time’), implicit communication and reaction shots between characters.

Here, we have a set of ads that appeal powerfully to the right-brain; ads that elicit the strong emotional response needed for brand building.

When we look at the bottom 10, and so the Christmas ads least likely to drive lasting effects and market share gain, different features are discernible.


Dog’s Trust – “A Dog Is For Life”
Cats Protection League – “Sponsor a Cat”
Greenpeace – “Christmas Roast”
Loewe – “An Otter’s Tale”
Selfridges – “Future Fantasy: A Christmas For Modern Times”
WWF – “Adopt A Better Future”
Burberry – “What Is Love?”
KFC – “Chainsaw”
Clogau Gold – “Christmas 2019”
Vodafone – “#ChristmasUnlimited”

The bottom 10 is dominated by not-for-profit ads. Charity ads at Christmas tend to use upsetting imagery that might achieve a short-term spike in donations. But this is an approach that will do little for long-term brand building. Luxury brands like Burberry and Selfridges also feature in the bottom ten; these ads rely on rhythmic soundtracks and quick cuts. They lack a story, use flat backdrops and deprive the viewer of a sense of place. These are all ‘left-brain’ features that are unlikely to benefit the brands long-term.

Does long-term growth matter for brands at Christmas? John Lewis Christmas advertising performed better than its competitors for years and the retailer saw several years of sustained growth as a result, as their IPA award demonstrated. The other important thing to remember about strong brand-building advertising is that it ensures that your activation advertising works harder too.

What is the moral of this Christmas tale? A story unfolding, betweenness, a strong sense of place, the referencing of other things, and the desire to entertain for commercial gain, are great for Christmas. But we shouldn’t forget that they are important the rest of the year too.

Orlando Wood is chief innovation officer at System1.

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