US Nation’s Favourite 2021

America’s most emotionally effective ad of 2021 stars an old man, a young kid, and a cookie. It’s a 15 second spot for Oreo in their “Stay Playful” campaign, and has the kid showing his grandpa the fun you can have taking your Oreo apart. The twist? The demonstration is happening over a video call, with technology (and cookies) bringing people together.

“Demonstration” isn’t a blockbuster, an award-winner, and if you saw it you might not have given it a second thought. But it got the highest score of any US ad last year on the Test Your Ad platform – a maximum 5.9-Stars. And it’s worth a closer look.

Not just because people loved it, but because it encapsulates so many of the trends in this year’s most popular advertising. It’s short. It’s cross-generational. It’s pandemic-era but not a pandemic ad. It celebrates human betweenness. And – last but certainly not least – it’s about food.

So trust us. No ad was more 2021 than this one. You can dig into our reports on America’s Top 50 emotional ads of 2021, but let’s also take time to think about those trends.

FOOD:

Last year, only 4 of our Top 10 ads were for food and drink. This year, Food ads were the big winners – the proportion of food and drink ads in the Top 10 doubled, with a mighty 8 out of 10 ads food related. Not just any food – 7 of those 8 ads were for cookies, cereals, or candies. In 2021, nothing made America happier than the thought of treats.

Oreo, Hersheys, Lindt and others have made plenty of 5-Star ads in the past. What’s notable this year is the absolute dominance of these categories. It fits with the other trends in this second pandemic year – these ads are connecting with a country where a lot of big treats have been put on hold, so the small ones are more appealing than ever.

SHORT ADS:

In 2021, the proportion of the Top 50 ads on the Test Your Ad platform that were under 30 seconds jumped from 20% to 36%. This is a trend we’d expect to continue, for two reasons. First of all, for both budgetary and strategic reasons there’s more pressure to make creative that’s short and easy to adapt to on-air and online video. Second, creatives are getting better at packing more emotion into a shorter time.

The Oreo at #1 is a great example of this – it’s a miniature story, which gives the viewer enough time to get to know the characters before revealing their situation. 15-second and 20-second ads used to struggle with storytelling, relying instead on voiceovers or rapid montages. Now directors are mastering the 15-second story and the number of short 5-Star ads is on the rise.

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CROSS-GENERATIONAL ADS:

US ads have made big strides on diversity and representation, and one heartening trend is how many ads are spotlighting family relationships across generations. Not just parents and kids, but extended families and grandparents. This also increases the positive representation for older people in ads – important as the population continues to age.

As well as the Oreo grandpa there’s Etsy’s terrific “Black Santa” ad – the top US non-food holiday ad of 2021 – whose story crosses multiple generations. And there’s a beautiful spot from Amazon showing an older couple remembering the 50s song they danced to at their high school prom. The stories of older people can be immensely effective, without needing to fall back on cliched ideas around loneliness or sadness.

THE UNSPOKEN PANDEMIC:

2020’s top ads understandably included a lot of Covid-19 related spots, as brands raced to acknowledge the situation and reassure their viewers. But well before the end of 2020 we were finding evidence that overt pandemic content was becoming a turn-off for viewers. Covid hasn’t gone away, but it’s rare to find brands directly acknowledging it.

Instead, the ads which resonated in 2021 speak to the emotional and practical realities of life during Covid. We don’t see big parties, we do see family gatherings and cookouts. We see a lot of outdoors-based ads, with people hiking, walking and exercising pets. As the Oreo ad proves, we see video conversation as a natural part of life. And there’s a surge of travel related ads in the Top 50 as Americans dream again of resorts and local getaways. Finally, there’s the trend so important it deserves calling out on its own.

BETWEENNESS:

In his new book Look Out, Orlando Wood talks about a sense of between-ness as crucial to successful advertising. It engages the broad-beam attention governed by the right brain. What is between-ness? The idea that what’s important isn’t the individual characters but the relationship between them, expressed in non-verbal as well as verbal ways. The Oreo ad works not because there’s a kid pulling funny faces, but because he’s pulling them to his laughing Grandpa.

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Between-ness, Wood says, has been at risk as ads become more abstract and product-focused. But it’s an important factor in making ads which engage viewers emotionally and build brands long-term.

Fortunately there’s plenty of evidence in this Top 50 list of ads which have between-ness at their heart. Hershey’s Easter ads took the focus off the candy and onto the people sharing it. McDonalds made the Drive-Thru social by showing people singing together in the car. And Doordash, in one of last year’s top Super Bowl ads, used the Sesame Street puppets to remind us what neighborhood means.

As society recovers from the pandemic and weathers future events, between-ness will become even more important. When we look back at this list for 2022, let’s hope we see a lot more ads with human connection at their centre, making audience connections for brands.

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