It drew me in… Christmas advertising is not only about storytelling, it is about the story of us as humans


12th December 2023

Brand & Comms Team

It drew me in… Christmas advertising is not only about storytelling, it is about the story of us as humans

The tradition of big-budget Christmas ads has been around for a good while now, with the opportunity to enhance a brand’s equity too great to miss, I doubt they are going anywhere soon. Every year consumers and marketing professionals alike are eager to see what the brands have done this year…so how does the 2023 offering stack up?

What have we seen this year?

Strategically, the themes pitched are what you would expect and what we have seen in the past: joy, nostalgia, togetherness, big feasts, turkeys, cheese, and all this Englishness. The use of characters, animation, well-known UK celebrities, big productions, and popular soundtracks have been another common denominator across this year’s Christmas ads. 

We have also seen brands such as John Lewis and M&S challenging those traditions. While the ideas per se could be interesting, we are unsure if the executions seen this year have been nailed yet or maybe there is something deeper that prevents full engagement.

But what is Christmas to consumers?

Brands may need to keep in mind that Christmas is fundamentally traditional, and these visual cues have a deep cultural meaning which engages people emotionally and forges their identities. It may be the case that brands can flirt with challenging traditions, but there is a general need to uphold some traditions, as they seem to enhance a sense of belonging at Christmas. It seems more of an attempt to bring differentiation driven by the ad agencies than an unmet need from consumers.

The research we conducted  

Amongst the 20+ ads we watched, analysed, and discussed in the agency, we decided to test four executions using our implicit comms testing tools. 

Out of those tested the clear winner was RIDE JOY from Amazon so let’s dive into why, as we feel it provides great points of reflection regarding what makes us as humans tick: which universal treats go beyond English Christmas traditions and remind us of things that are much more fundamental – the story of us, humans.

Our research analysed our Reaction Time testing results across our ‘AAA’ framework of Attention, Affect and Action, as well as bespoke statements for this year’s Christmas campaigns including statements like ‘It drew me in’. This was to delve further into the subject of what makes humans tick and evaluate the power of ideas that use the paradigm of storytelling.  

Throughout the years, there has been much talk about the importance of storytelling in bringing emotional engagement. A (good) story puts the whole brain to work, and we are wired for stories from an evolutionary standpoint. When we listen to a story, our brain waves synchronise with the storyteller, so there is an (electrical) connection. However, another fundamental question is what type of stories are more emotionally relevant, and we believe that this winning ad sheds some light on this. 

Why do we think the Amazon ad is working?

The Amazon ad reminds us of the emotional value of things like long-lasting friendship, the power of togetherness, and how our actions make others feel. It ties to the understanding of human needs and Walnut’s IGM (Implicit Goal Model), where Belonging, Protection and Connection are key factors for survival and mental wellbeing. Therefore, stories that draw us in by enhancing our beliefs and anchoring us to what is important are effective, as shown by our results. They endorse the power of belonging and the benefits we get from it. They give us a little uplift and have the power of simplicity: the Amazon ad serves it up with a simple storyline -one story, one set, one message, one product.  

Obviously this wasn’t a view held by all… While Campaign thought the ad was overly cheesy, we feel that it actually encompassed english traditions and brought through the human needs which make us tick. Our results show that there can be an inherent bias of those that are partial to, or work within advertising, and testing creative on nationally representative population is a more true read of performance.

Watch the Amazon Christmas AD 2023

Thinking more generally about the ads we reviewed and tested, which also included ASDA, TK Maxx and M&S, we saw interesting findings around relevance. While relevance is an important factor for any creative, we actually saw consumers not always relating directly to the protagonist in our creatives.

None of the ads tested did well to reach even our 40% threshold (see results in Figure 1). However, by measuring whether the viewer was ‘drawn in’ by what they were seeing (see results in Figure 2), we were able to measure their emotional engagement with the story itself, picking up on the power of empathy. This connection goes beyond strict personal relevance, which the Amazon ad did better than the others, especially when considering we are looking at implicit performance.

Figure 1:


Figure 2:

Nostalgia as vehicle to increase positive engagement

Nostalgia is a dominant theme and creative ingredient around Christmas time, which ads have done well to capture this year, focusing on the magic of Christmas using animated toys and anthropomorphised household objects, reminiscent of child-like wonder and imagination. 

Daring to lean so close to being cheesy, the Amazon ad stands out from the crowd in this area, taking nostalgia a step further, venturing beyond metaphor – the nostalgic elderly protagonists use Amazon’s instant service to effectively re-live their childhood memories. Rather than taking a wistful perspective that we might associate with old age, this ad focuses on the positive relationship we have with our memories, positioning the brand as the facilitator. 

Nostalgia is complex with a mixed affective signature, which is implicated in a wide range of brain regions. When a nostalgic response is triggered by certain associations and memories of the past, feelings of warmth and familiarity can be induced. If brands can be part of the consumers’ past and implicate themselves with these feelings, this can create a nice bridge to the present, enhancing a brand’s relevance. Bringing this back to the ads we have tested – Amazon has done well to establish the brand as a bridge between the familiar past and joyful present. Figure 3 shows the positive emotional valence triggered by the story.  

Figure 3:  

However, as Richard Shotton stated earlier in the week, and we completely agree with, we have had some nice ads and interesting attempts this year, but nothing as good as the John Lewis ad in 2011, ‘The Long Wait’. Yes, it was more Christmassy with the focus on how Christmas feels around the moment just before the Big Day, the anticipation that is built and our desire to give instead. However, as we have seen with this year’s winning ad, RIDE JOY from Amazon retailer, a relevant story can connect with consumers at an emotional level, reminding us of the human themes that make us tick.

Written by Brand & Comms Team Email Brand & Comms Team

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