Christmas ads that clicked, according to brain science

Once again, The Message partnered with Toronto-based neuromarketing data and research company Brainsights to understand how Canadians responded to holiday ads from around the world.

Brainsights doesn’t ask people how they feel about an ad, instead measuring their subconscious reactions. Its brain wave measurement technology records consumer attention, emotional connection and memory encoding every two milliseconds. It averages responses from all consumers studied for any given ad in order to understand how it performs.

The resulting “Emotional Strength” score is the peak emotional connection a spot reaches across consumers. Brainsights provided The Message with scorecards on a series of international holiday ads, based on how strongly they connect with viewers.

Below, Brainsights founder and CEO Kevin Keane provides the results of the third wave (see the first wave here and the second here), using a percentile ranking system.* According to Keane, a diversity of approaches and themes work in eliciting emotional strength with Canadians.

KFC, Doc Morris and Tesco show the power of humour in connecting deeply. Committing to purpose, as Hellman’s did, shows the ability of brands to connect by being part of something bigger. And Hallmark showed that there’s power in exploring the more modest moments of human connection, especially those that overcome the perceived or real barriers—race, ability, isolation—that conspire to keep us apart.

KFC: “A Recipe for Seduction” (Lifetime Trailer)

KFC has a tradition of wacky ideas that “hijack” Christmas (11 Herbs and Spices Holiday firelog, anyone?), but surely this takes the prize. Riffing on the classic Lifetime Christmas romance, A Recipe for Seduction casts Mario Lopez as the hunky Harland Sanders, a private chef whose secret recipe is about to change the world—and disrupt his employers’ marriage plans.

Emotional Strength Score: 96*

Doc Morris: “Take Care”

This beautiful short film tracks the exercise routine of an older man living alone. As the film progresses, we’re fed clues—the mysterious framed photo, the eye rolls from the female neighbour, the suit and tie—that suggest this might be romantically motivated. When the true reason is revealed, you’ll understand why it connects so strongly.

Emotional Strength Score: 92

Hellman’s UK: “Hellman’s Island: Animal Crossing”

Hellman’s Animal Crossing integration is extended into its holiday campaign, with an appeal to reduce food waste. The charitable focus in the now-familiar setting of one of the year’s breakout games reaches strong emotional heights with Canadians.

Emotional Strength Score: 86

Tesco: “No Naughty List”

In a year when everyone could use a break, Santa ditches his naughty list in this ad for U.K. grocer Tesco. A queue of would-be naughty-listers fess up to various transgressions, ranging from one giving her sister a bad haircut to Santa himself admitting to taking a vacation. The humour and self-forgiveness resonate strongly.

Emotional Strength Score: 82

Hallmark: “Share more merry this season…”

Neighbours communicate warmly in sign language, sharing cards and wholesome moments. It’s a message of patience and compassion that’s needed to break down the perceived barriers that come between us. It’s a reminder that goes down well with Canadians.

Emotional Strength Score: 80

And one that did not.

FedEx: “Shipathon Training Day”

The logistics brand tells everyone that it’s ready to deliver this holiday season, having been through rigorous Ninja Warrior/Wipeout-style training. But it fails to generate much interest or connection.

Emotional Strength Score: 4


*Percentile ranks of the spot’s emotional strength score. Emotional Strength is the highest level of Connection recorded in a given spot, compared to Video Connection benchmarks from Q4 2020. To date, more than 175 holiday ads have been tested.

More than 100 general population Adult English Canadians were brain scanned for each holiday ad. Each wore a brain wave reader (electroencephalography) to measure their levels of Attention, Emotional Connection and Encoding to Memory.