The 2018 Xmas Ads: What Didn’t Work

Combining our FeelMore50 and System1 Ad Ratings tests, we’ve rated over 100 UK Christmas ads this year, predicting long- and short-term impact for them all through consumer emotional response. Here are the trends that mattered and the lessons to learn from them.

In this blog post, we’re looking at what didn’t work. If you want to know who’s on the Nice list, go here to look at our winning trends.

If you want our team to take you through the results in person or on a call, please get in touch!

RETAIL: There’s no getting away from it – this was a bad year emotionally for retailers and their ads. Our interim results suggested that the number of ads scoring 3-Stars or more had halved year-on-year. It ended up not quite that bad, but it was still a big drop. As our UK Comms Director, Will Goodhand, put it, “the bauble has burst”. With Black Friday sales reportedly strong, retailers will hope their promotional and online activity can take up the activation slack. But for brand-building, it’s an opportunity missed.

LessonRetailers need strong brands – take the dip in Christmas quality as a reason to aim for emotional advertising in the rest of the year.

PRODUCT ADS: Why did retail ads underperform? One trend was the explicit pursuit of a product-focused strategy by several key brands – WaitroseDebenhams, and M&S joined Tescosand Lidl in making ads where the Christmas range was very much the hero. It’s vital to understand that this isn’t a bad approach to making ads – the M&S #MyMarksFaves ad in particular created plenty of positive emotion. But time and again at System1 we’ve seen a 3-Star ceiling on product-driven, sales-focused ads – it’s really hard to break through that and make high-growth-potential ads using this approach. Worse, these ads don’t consistently perform better on short-term metrics either.

Lesson: Great emotional ads are not a vanity project – it’s much more common for them to register high scores on short-term metrics than for product-based ads to provoke emotion.

GUEST STARS*: John Lewis went for a “left turn” with its Elton John ad. In the context of this year’s retail ads, its 3-Star result is good – but it’s not as high as the store has managed in the past. John Lewis was criticised for advertising its star, not itself – sentiment echoed by some of our viewers. Other brands’ guest stars fell short too – Coke’s tie-up with Rak-Su didn’t rate as highly as its standard holiday ad, and Vodafone’s Martin Freeman campaign continued to underwhelm.

*Human ones, that is.

LessonIt’s better to make your own icon than hire a celebrity to do the job.

EDGINESS: Spare a thought for Pepsi at Christmas – while it owns some big advertising moments, like Super Bowl halftime, in the holiday season it has to sit back while its bright-red rival steals the show. This year Pepsi fought back, with an ad full of pop-punk carols, light-up surfboards and a plea to consumers to make “new traditions” at Christmas. Consumer verdict: Nice try… but only a 2-Star ad. Edgy and quirky ads rarely score well at Xmas, as brands like Apple and Burberry also found this year.

Lesson: Most consumers love Christmas. Some don’t. But very few want your hip alternative take.

GRINCHES: Even with Christmas clichés abounding and festive fatigue setting in for marketers, it’s still better to join in than opt out. System1 Ad Ratings lets us analyse the quality of every ad on TV this November. 1 in 5 were Christmas themed, ranging from Durex to dash cams, and they performed better both on Star (long-term) and Spike (short-term) Ratings than the ads with no Christmas content. Most consumers don’t care about the Christmas ad battle – but a little seasonal magic can still liven up a grey November day for them.

Lesson: Make a Christmas ad! There is an emotional Christmas Bonus for your brand to collect.

That’s all for this year. For our retail ranking, check out the FeelMore50 site, and to see how Christmas ads performed in your category, sign up for your free Ad Ratings trial.

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