What Makes a Christmas Campaign Miss the Mark?

Some dos and don'ts for holiday adverts

In 2011, hearts melted over John Lewis' "The Long Wait." Turns out a little boy's impatience for the holidays to arrive stemmed from his desire to give presents, rather than receive.

Since then, Christmas commercials, especially in Britain, have become a highly anticipated fixture of the festive calendar. Such ads have evolved into cultural touchstones.

Although Coca-Cola's "The Holidays Are Coming" from 1995 was arguably the first famous Christmas advert, "The Long Wait" provided an impetus for brands to pour time and budgets into making their yuletide messages more memorable. In 2023, the Advertising Association and Warc calculated that marketers will spend nearly $12 billion in the U.K. alone for the festive season, up 4.8 percent from last year.

These campaigns have redefined advertising calendars, but the pressure to get it right is immense. Brands that get it wrong risk alienating viewers as well as current and potential customers.

How can they avoid missing the mark? What will ensure they bring people cheer?

Festive failure

An obvious example this year is Marks & Spencer's, which inadvertently sparked controversy with a now-removed shot of burning party hats that appeared to be the colors of the Palestinian flag. While M&S made this campaign months ago, unaware of where global events were headed, its travails demonstrate the power of symbols, which should never be underestimated.

However, beyond this unfortunate moment, the M&S advert has received criticism elsewhere. Its call for viewers to "do only what you love"—with shots of celebrities torching Christmas cards and punting Elf on the Shelf into the sky—is unusually gutsy for a holiday advert. It's a fun, refreshing approach, but not necessarily one that people want to hear, and many viewers have expressed their distaste.

So, what happened? The problem for M&S is that Christmas is laden with ritual and tradition. That's actually what people love about it, particularly in 2023, after years of depressing news and Covid. Brands like M&S spend a great deal of time understanding their audience, but the problem often lies in the execution of those insights.

Implementing audience understanding

Behavioral science is an important tool that can provide brands with in-depth understanding and ensure their adverts resonate with what customers are really thinking (not just what brands think they want).

Take Amazon's 2023 ad for example. Some have criticized its on-the-nose "old ladies sledding" as too saccharine, but consumers are mostly fans. Christmas traditions and nostalgia are the warm hugs people seek at the end of the year, even if some marketers are afraid of leaning into such tropes.

What Amazon and M&S both recognized is that not everyone experiences the "happy family around the table" at Christmas. Yet, the reason Amazon's ad resonates is that it nods to other elements of the winter period—such as playing in the snow—tapping into those magic moments. This roots the campaign in "the fun things we do with the people we love," cleverly associating that vibe with its logo shaped as a smile.

Brands falter when there is a disconnect from the emotional pulse of their audience. At Christmas, people want to be cheered up. John Lewis' marketing director recently said that every year the aim of their advert is to bring "a bit more joy." Underneath it all, that's what viewers are looking for.

Unwrapping emotions

This is where an understanding of behavioral science is helpful. We know emotions play a significant role in decision making, so Christmas adverts that evoke strong responses—joy, nostalgia, warmth—are the perfect opportunity to help viewers connect with the brand. The season provides an opportunity to dial up those emotional triggers and make ads more memorable.

Similarly, behavioral science gives us an understanding of "social norming." For Christmas ads, this means tapping into traditions, family gatherings and the spirit of giving. Ads with a little twist and a sense of humor perform best. Tesco has been widely praised for capturing the trope of the overzealous festive family member, transforming it into a light-hearted yet touching viewing experience.

Tesco also does well with nostalgia, and in '23 it used OMC's "How Bizarre" as a soundtrack. This tactic is successfully employed by multiple brands this year, including Apple (with George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity"), Waitrose (Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough") and Amazon (featuring the Beatles' "A Day in the Life').

Behavioral science is about understanding people's psychological state, which is especially vital at Christmas. At their core, festive spots are best when they focus on eliciting a feeling, rather than selling a product. Yes, ultimately brands stoke sales, but the holidays are better for building connection and trust.

It can be a fine line, but the rewards for getting a Christmas campaign right are massive and lasting. For those that get it wrong, it's a bit like working hard all year and then losing control at the holiday party: you undo all that goodwill you built. A brand can be on the money all year, but if the Xmas advert lands badly, that's what everyone will remember.

Sally Tarbit
Sally Tarbit is director at creative branding and communications agency The Team.

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