Cheers to Ad Effectiveness: The Top 10 US Holiday Ads of 2023
The holiday season is one of the most crucial periods for retailers and other brands hoping for a big boost to year-end sales. While fanfare around holiday ads is not quite as loud as it is for Christmas ads in the UK (after all, Super Bowl is the US advertising industry’s biggest event), there are still many advertisers that push out creative to encourage holiday-season shopping. From ads promoting Thanksgiving spreads to Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals to Christmas togetherness, there are many festive moments.
So, we’ve put all the ads airing on TV this holiday season to the test with our Test Your Ad platform. The top 10 ranking is based on viewers’ emotional response data, as we know that the more people feel, the more they buy. Read on to learn more about the new ads (and returning favorites!) that have brought joy to audiences.
How We Rank Holiday Creative
In Test Your Ad, each ad is given a Star Rating from 1-Star to 5.9-Stars, a measure predicting their potential to drive long-term brand growth. Overall, only 1% of ads land in the 5-Star range. To rank ads that tied on Star Rating, we looked at System1’s Spike Rating, a measure of short-term sales potential.
In 2022, System1 tested 57 holiday ads, with five ads scoring the coveted 5-Stars. Meanwhile, 11% landed a 4-Star score. Despite these high marks, the overall average was 3.2-Stars. This was a decline from 3.4-Stars in 2021 and 3.9-Stars in 2020. It’s clear that holiday ads have seen brighter days. Would 2023’s creative be a bit merrier?
Thankfully, this year’s ads are sleighing effectiveness. Nine ads reached 5-Star status and the average Star Rating is 4.1-Stars, a strong sign for effectiveness. So, it’s a 4-year high for holiday ad long-term effectiveness – now that’s a gift that keeps on giving!
The Top 10 Ads
The top ads are ordered by Star Rating. Ads level on Star Rating are ordered according to System1’s Spike Rating which predicts short-term sales impact.
1. Meijer – “Pass It On” (5.9-Stars)
Not many brands invest in Thanksgiving advertisements, but this one from Meijer shows that an authentic approach can pay off to promote a food-filled holiday. We see a family filling their plates with delicious-looking Thanksgiving dishes. And then we see one of the youngest members of the family bring her plate outside and share it with someone else. We hear the sound of a checkout scanner as the plate is passed down a longer line of people, and the voiceover informs viewers that their purchase of Meijer-brand food will provide a meal to feed a neighbor in need through the brand’s “Simply Give” program. It’s a feel-good ad that lands the top spot this year.
2. Amazon – “Joy Ride” (5.8-Stars)
Amazon’s global campaign Joy Ride is not only a hit in the US, scoring 5.8-Stars, but also in the UK, where it landed the maximum 5.9-Stars. One of the reasons it performs so well with viewers around the world is that it’s built on a simple storyline that every adult can relate to: getting older and reliving the magical memories of our youth.
The ad, set to The Beatles’ “In My Life”, features three older women watching kids sled down a hill. But thanks to Amazon, they no longer have to be bystanders to the winter fun. With seat cushions from the retailer, they can comfortably sled down the hill, which brings back memories of doing so as young children.
It’s a best-in-class example of how to effectively feature older people and entertain them, along with the wider population.
3. Hershey’s Kisses – “Christmas Bells” (5.7-Stars)
Hershey’s brings back its familiar “Christmas Bells” ad, featuring a handbell choir of Hershey’s Kisses, year after year. The decision to re-air the creative makes sense, given it scores an exceptional 5-Stars again and again.
Just like Coke does with its Christmas trucks campaign, Hershey’s recognizes the power of wear in – reinvesting in the same creative each year gives audiences something familiar to look forward to when winter arrives. Leah Longan, former marketing director for the brand, offered more insight in an interview in the New York Times in 1994, saying they continued to run “Christmas Bells” because seasonal ads “don’t wear out like normal commercials.”
While the spot originally debuted in 1989, it’s been given a few updates and a visual refresh from stop-motion animation to CGI. But the message and overall feel of the ad remains the same, making it a beloved Christmas classic.
4. Macy’s – “Hey, Santa” (5.5-Stars)
Macy’s landed in the top 10 in 2022 and this year they make a return with a heartwarming tale of a young boy trying to pick out the perfect gift at the retailer. Viewers may at first think that he’s shopping for mom or dad, but Macy’s have a clever and sweet twist up their sweater sleeves. He decides to use his visit to Santa’s Grotto to turn the tables and give Saint Nick a present – fuzzy slippers for him to kick back and relax once his long day of listening to Christmas wishes is complete. It’s a lovely execution, with traditional music and an opportunity to show off the full Macy’s range en route to the punchline.
5. Pillsbury – “Holidays: Tree Topper” (5.4-Stars)
Just as we’ve seen with Hershey’s, high-performing creative can continue to provide a return for brands. Pillsbury takes its 2021 holiday ad for another spin this year and it’s once again a hit, earning 5.4-Stars by focusing on simple yet festive storytelling. In fact, the ad saw a jump of nearly one full Star, as it scored 4.5-Stars when it originally aired two years ago.
In just 15 seconds, Pillsbury shows us a magical wintry wonderland – the townspeople have gathered on a snowy night for the lighting of the showstopper tree. A young girl climbs a ladder to place a star at the top. The Pillsbury Doughboy, a recurring distinctive asset, or Fluent Device, is also there.
Then, we’re transported to the dinner table, where the young girl is enjoying a warm Pillsbury crescent role. Poppin’ Fresh, as he’s called, makes one final appearance and gives us his signature giggle, at the ad’s conclusion.
Fluent devices are great at signaling the brand quickly and driving lots of positive feeling. Though the ad is short, the Doughboy helps Pillsbury land a great score and 91 out of 100 on our Fluency scale, indicating strong brand recognition.
6. Hobby Lobby – “Christmas 2023” (5.4-Stars)
After a spot in the top 10 in 2022, Hobby Lobby return again. This year they’re are all about regifting, taking their 2020 ad and re-releasing it. It’s rare for brands to do this, but it makes a lot of sense. Ad wear-out is far rarer than marketers think, and we see ads remain effective or even improve when they’re reissued. In this case, Hobby Lobby’s story of a teenage boy surprising his mom melts audience hearts whatever the year.
And despite debuting the same year as the COVID-19 pandemic and featuring a mom who works as a nurse, the ad doesn’t get stuck in what we call the sadness trap. Sure, viewers experience a bit of sadness when they see the mom working tirelessly to keep a clean home and work a late-night shift at the hospital. But the heartwarming surprise ensures that these feelings of sadness are replaced with positive emotions like surprise and happiness. It’s a great example of taking viewers on an emotional journey. End on a high and you’ll have a better chance of landing among the public’s favorites.
7. Capital One – “Holiday Night Fever” (5.3-Stars)
Celebrity cameos are rarer in the holiday season, as there’s more emphasis on storytelling. But Capital One find a unique way to use a star, with John Travolta as a funky Santa Claus reprising his iconic Saturday Night Fever role. It’s one of the funniest and freshest ads of the season, and a reminder that cultural references and nostalgia can play a big part in driving happiness among viewers. Make it familiar and fun and you’re well on your way to a strong result.
Credit card companies don’t tend to appear in the Christmas top 10, so congratulations to Capital One. Although perhaps it’s not too surprising given they also scored the top spot in our testing of March Madness ads. The brand is on an effectiveness roll.
8. Walmart – “Holidays: Find Your Thing” (5.1-Stars)
Walmart is another brand that’s making a repeat appearance in the top 10. Last year the retailer secured 4.4-Stars and the #9 spot with an ad that highlighted all the different ways that people celebrate the holidays – different decorations, traditions, foods and more. This year, it’s an increase in both Star Rating and ranking.
Walmart again showcases a large cast of characters, this time in humorous and relatable situations, like one parent inquiring whether the other has purchased batteries for all the toys the kids will soon be unwrapping, a young girl stealing a cookie when nobody’s looking and two sisters accidentally gifting each other the same sweater.
In addition to successfully making viewers feel all the festive feels, Walmart also prioritizes representation, showcasing people of different races, ages, abilities and cultures throughout the ad. The commercial even features some Spanish words on the screen to highlight scenes like children putting out a plate of tortilla chips and a glass of milk for Santa.
9. Kroger – “Magic happens when we bring new traditions to the table” (5.0-Stars)
Kroger’s holiday ad nails what Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer at System1, refers to as right-brained advertising. These are elements that appeal to the broad-beam attention of the right brain, and are especially effective at building long-term memory structures that help brands drive profit gain and market share growth.
Here are just a few of the right-brained features that Kroger includes in a story about a childless couple who host foreign exchange students in their home:
- A clear sense of place – the couple’s home is a cozy and welcoming environment where food helps the couple bond with the students they host
- One scene unfolding with progression – we witness the couple host many different students throughout the years and learn how to cook their local dishes
- Characters with agency – even without voice, one of the ways to show agency, the couple still achieve a sense of liveliness through movement and expression
- Implicit, unspoken communication – there are meaningful glances between the couple that help viewers understand the storyline
- Music with discernible melody – Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph” is a popular song that people can sing or hum, and it also ties in nicely with the story, which shows the couple taking photos with their guests and keeping them on their refrigerator to remind them of the connections and memories they’ve made
Kroger also keeps with the signature look of their ads, using their “Krojis,” or Kroger emoji characters to tell an entertaining story about how food can bring people together.
10. Reese’s – “Mini Gifts” (4.9-Stars)
There’s no question that Reese’s have a successful ad formula: a voiceover from actor Will Arnett, witty copy delivered in just 10-15 seconds, a splash of orange and brown and mouthwatering close-ups of Reese’s cups. This ad brings a festive splash of red, green and gold to highlight holiday-themed Reese’s mini peanut butter cups.
This approach has helped the brand score a consistent string of 4- and 5-Star ads. We frequently talk about the importance of branding early and often, and Reese’s demonstrate how effectively distinctive assets are at signaling a brand.
How are both new and old ads winning Christmas? They’re giving customers smiles, sentiment, and security.
Smiles because consumers want feelgood entertainment at Christmas time, like Capital One’s hilarious Travolta ad and Hershey’s classic bells jingling to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Sentiment because the holidays bring traditions, generosity and quality time with family and friends, as heartwarming ads from Amazon, Meijer and Hobby Lobby demonstrate. And security because with the cost of living still high and stressed consumers short on time, brands like Walmart can show they have their customers’ backs whatever their holiday needs.
To see all the holiday ad ratings, visit System1’s Test Your Ad platform and select the “Top 2023 Holiday Season US” category under US Topical Ads.