Neuro-Insight: this year’s Xmas ads story – separate but together with a dash of optimism

By Shazia Ginai

With the possibility of big family gatherings being off limits this December, brands have already started dropping their Christmas adverts like snowflakes to spread some festive spirits and mood to locked down Britain.

However this context comes with its own constraints. Given the ongoing restrictions around the UK, marketers cannot risk showing tried and tested shortcuts to the festive season such family gatherings around the dining table, or meetings with friends on Christmas Eve. Some may see this as an awkward limitation to their planned approaches as they try to avoid cognitive dissonance to the current experiences of customers. However the same values of human connection and hope remain prevalent in this year’s crop of ads, whilst still acknowledging the broader Covid narrative.

Years of research into the neurological and behavioural responses from people to the traditional Christmas ads have taught us one overarching thing. People want to see, and respond to authentic, positive associations with Christmas that they can personally relate to. These associations are memorable. In short, this year may be like any other in that people are seeking ads that allow them to escape reality for a couple of minutes and spark that sense of togetherness.

The storyline of ‘separate, but together’ has been encapsulated in this year’s Amazon advert ‘The show must go on,’ which rests on a very accessible narrative of disappointment from artists and audiences about performance cancellations. Avoiding pessimism, the human interactions portrayed in the advert, even if kept to a minimum, express the strong willpower of people to connect and help each other in times of crisis. This is something everyone around the nation has experienced over the past ten months and should trigger that recognition in the brain.

Our research on previous Christmas ads has found that brains love human interaction and such moments drive strong peaks of approach. Amazon has once again deployed a popular song, which works well for brain encoding due to its familiarity. From last year’s ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’ to Queen’s instrumental, the creative should trigger a strong peak of memory encoding as viewers recognise the soundtrack and its alignment with the storyline.

Another brand that focuses on a sense of familiarity when it comes to music and repeating characters is Aldi. This year’s advert follows returning character Kevin The Carrot’s adventure, rushing to reunite with his family. The appearance of Santa Claus will improve the ad’s memorability due to the overwhelming familiarity of dear old Santa and his undeniable associations with this period. We often find that festive advertising which strongly communicates long-held Christmas traditions through soundtrack or imagery connect on a deeper level, because our memories are built by associations.

It’s striking that many of the other ads released so far don’t directly reference the festive period beyond gift giving. This may be a tacit acknowledgement that this year’s ads have a much more functional purpose than the big brand building exercises we have experienced in previous years.

Consumers often perceive Christmas ads as entertainment rather than commercials. In many ways, this is the British version of the Super Bowl. The broader pandemic context will mean that many connect differently, and it looks like most released ads so far lack typical emotional markers which lead to longevity of connection in people’s minds and hearts.

Nonetheless, the advertisers that stand out will be those that bring a bit more escapism, fused with a dash of optimism to warm people’s hearts and put a smile on their faces this festive season.

Shazia Ginai is UK CEO of Neuro-Insight.

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