The most effective Christmas ads, according to brain science

The Christmas ad for high-end British fashion and lifestyle brand Mulberry was the most effective among Canadians this holiday season, according to neuromarketing firm Brainsights.

Spain’s Christmas Lottery campaign also performed well, while the homegrown ad that clicked most with Canadians was an influencer testimonial for the cash-back site Rakuten.

Brainsights ranked 163 ads from all over the world based on non-conscious viewer reaction. More than 500 participants wore EEG headgear that measured their brain waves as they viewed the ads. Each ad was viewed by at least 40 people, with most viewed by 120 people to ensure that representative aggregate measures were captured for each.

Brainsights measures brain waves during each ad screening, with attention, emotional connection and encoding to memory among the measured values. So the ads are effective insofar as they actually generated the strongest instinctual reaction with viewers. Brainsights measures how people actually respond to ads, not how they think they should respond.

The Mulberry ad features a poem by British poet Caleb Femi (pictured) about the sense of connection that “links Christmases past, present and future.” The ad has the rich texture expected for a high-end or fashion brand, but with an injection of youth from Femi.

“It might be considered creatively indulgent—a poem from a luxury retailer, featuring beautiful people in beautiful settings—and it is,” said Brainsights CEO Kevin Keane. “But in a good way, in a way that touches everyone who wants the holidays to be cozy, comforting and full of compassion.”

As one would expect with Christmas advertising, similar emotional qualities of warmth and humanity were present in many of the spots that most strongly registered with viewers. “Everyone goes all in on emotion for the holiday ads,” said Keane.

But emotional doesn’t always work. The 10 ads that registered most strongly with Canadians, for example, include an auto ad that is essentially promoting a seasonal sales event, the Rakuten influencer spot, and a 15-second ad for a McDonald’s donut. “Canadians are also a practical bunch, looking for information related to saving money (Rakuten) and indulging (McCafe Donut Sticks),” said Keane.

The ads may make creatives cringe, but brainwaves don’t lie.

The rankings are based on aggregate levels derived from average and maximum values to determine if an ad keeps people engaged for its duration. “Sometimes you can can have a sprawling three or four-minute spot where you don’t really need all of that time to tell your story, and as a result you’re going to have people checking out,” he said.

Also noteworthy, said Keane, is the ads that are nowhere near the top of the list. Much of the creative for big, recognizable brands, including British brands (and we all know how the Brits love their Christmas advertising) fell flat, at least with Canadian viewers.

Mariah Carey reprising “All I want for Christmas” for Walkers Crisps came second last, the M&S “Go Jumpers” ad ranked 155th, and even the John Lewis and Waitrose Partners ad with the clumsy dragon landed at 146 on the list.

“You can get really kind of warm and fuzzy about emotion and it can be still sort of generic,” said Keane. “You may hope and think that you’re going to do like a really emotional spot. And it might not stir anything.”

Meanwhile, a two-minute spot made for a small hardware store in Wales (reportedly made for a mere £100) has been viewed more than 2.5 million times and was the third most brain-stimulating ad for Canadians.

The Spanish Lottery work is for the country’s famous Christmas lottery, but the stories are deeper and offer more insight into the human condition, creating a strong impact on many viewers in Canada.

“They’re really trying to understand what is family. And for the two spots that crack the top 10, it’s really about those changing definitions of family and that’s something that comes into focus over Christmas—but it’s not something that is exclusive to Christmas,” said Keane.

Check out the top 10 ads, as well as the other seven ads that make up the Canadian top 10.

#1 Mulberry:  The Season of Light

#2 Spanish Christmas Lottery: Ex-daughter in law

#3 Hafod Hardware: Christmas Advert 2019

#4 Spanish Christmas Lottery: Son in Law

#5 Rakuten Canada: Designer Sarah Keenleyside Shares How She Decorates Using

#6 Lidl Ireland: Christmas Elves TV Advert 2019

#7 Barbour: 125 Years of Blooming Barbour Christmases

#8 Lexus: The Bow Cover-Up

#9 McDonald’s Canada: Celebrate the Holidays with McCafe Donut Sticks

#10 Winners: Add to Cart*

Top 10 Canadian ads

#1 Rakuten Canada: Designer Sarah Keenleyside Shares How She Decorates Using
#2 McDonalds: Celebrate the Holidays with McCafe Donut Sticks
#3 Winners:  Add to Cart

#4 Oreo Cookie: #smallheartsbelievebig

#5 Rakuten Canada: Designer Sarah Keenleyside Shares Her Fave Parenting Hacks

#6 Giant Tiger: #SeeYourselfSaving this Christmas

#7 Best Buy Canada: Holiday Excitement Starts Here

#8 Dairy Farmers of Ontario: Big Believers – 60 second ad

#9 Canadian Tire: Snowy Search

#10 Swiss Chalet Festive Special: ‘One to go’ – 60s

*The version measured by Brainsights was a 15-second French-language version no longer posted to YouTube.

David Brown