Christmas ad tracker: John Lewis has done it again, or has it?

Advertisers had been warned to read the room this Christmas, by not flaunting presents and gifting during a cost-of-living crisis. But do purpose-driven ads really triumph at Christmas?

For advertisers, this is once again a tricky Christmas season. As customers are inevitably tightening their belts, would a cash-strapped public react kindly to the yearly flood of Christmas commercials?

The early signs are an emphatic “yes”. With a 1- to 5-star scale, System1’s Test Your Ad platform has been rating every new Christmas ad using the emotional response of real viewers to predict each ad’s long and short-term effectiveness. 

Usually only 1% of ads get the top 5-Star score. 

The 2022 Christmas ad season has only just begun, and the platform has already seen seven 5-Star ads from Aldi, ASDA, Boots, Disney, LEGO, Lidl, and M&S. Last year, only two ads achieved the top score – Aldi and Coca-Cola.

“The bleak economic forecast hasn’t stopped Christmas advertisers – and now we can see it hasn’t stopped the British public from loving Christmas ads,” said Jon Evans, Chief Customer Officer at System1. “The brilliant creatives in adland got it right and this could end up being the best year ever for Christmas ads in terms of emotional effectiveness.” 

John Lewis divides advertisers’ opinions

This year’s John Lewis ad is a well-executed story of a middle-aged man learning to skateboard so he can connect with the child he’ll be fostering. The powerful story stands out among Christmas ads which have taken a more straightforward feelgood festive approach.

However, as popular as John Lewis’ unconventional Christmas ad is, it has not rated as highly on System1’s scale. 

“If it was a typical brand-building ad, its 3.3-Star score on the 1-5 scale might be a little disappointing,” said Evans. “It’s actually an improvement on 2021’s story of a boy and an alien, but on the list of John Lewis ads it’s a mid-table effort in terms of brand-building effectiveness, well below the 5-Star likes of Excitable Edgar [2019].

“But this is not just a brand-building ad. It’s an awareness raiser for the issues faced by children in care in the UK and ties in with a campaign by John Lewis to help give them a better Christmas.”

Wunderman Thompson Technology’s Global Marketing Director, Josie Klafkowska, commented on the success of ‘not selling’ in the ad: “John Lewis’ eagerly anticipated Christmas ad signals a different approach this year. 

“The most remarkable thing about it is probably also the most unremarkable, in that it doesn't really appear to be selling anything at all. This is good! Given that the context for this Christmas is hardship for so many people, gifting will not necessarily be a priority. John Lewis has managed, in a very down-to-earth way, to tap into the 'it's what you do, not what you give' sentiment that will resonate with how many consumers are feeling.”

Criteo’s Retail Media MD, Sam Benkel also praised the purpose-driven ad: “Strategically, it’s another very strong brand play [from John Lewis] at a time when all retailers are keeping both eyes on the bottom line. Early Christmas ads such as TK Maxx’s ‘gifting hero’ spot emphasised that this year is all about helping shoppers find the right gifts which represent the best possible value, but it will be interesting to see which ads ultimately drive the most action among audiences. 

“John Lewis can be proud of an unconventional winner,” continued Evans. “But a word of caution. It’s easy for comfortably-off commentators to praise John Lewis for ‘getting the tone right’ this year and criticise more typically festive fare as inappropriate in a cost of living crisis. Our data at System1 shows that’s not what’s happening at all. 

“We’ve seen more 5-Star Christmas ads than ever before, and the vast majority have been unashamedly feelgood and joyful. Ordinary viewers facing a difficult winter and cut-down Christmas don’t want ads to mirror their struggles – more than ever, they’re responding to ads which make them feel a bit of happiness in a tough time.”

Reading the room: what is the mood?

It’s too soon to say which ad will end November on top of the Christmas tree, but there are already some interesting trends.

“Right now the likes of Kevin the Carrot, Farmer Christmas, and Buddy the Elf are bringing a spot of much-needed cheer, but in the long term strong performances now will be good for brands and businesses when the economic gloom lifts,” stated Evans. “There’s been an emphasis on family, nostalgia and special moments which gets the mood just right – even if it’s just for one day, at Christmas people want to feel a bit of joy.

“A more sensible comparison [for the John Lewis ad] isn’t with the likes of Buddy the Elf and Kevin the Carrot, it’s with ads like Sainsbury’s 2014 World War I ad, Iceland’s 2018 Greenpeace crossover and John Lewis’ own tie-in with Age UK, 2015’s “Man On The Moon”. All those ads scored only 1- or 2-Stars: the purpose element overwhelmed effectiveness. This year John Lewis has got the balance right.

“We can also look at other measures in the test as proof the ad’s working: the top key associations are ‘caring’ and ‘family’ and the emotional intensity of the ad is much higher than average – testament to its power as a piece of storytelling.” 

Klafkowska concluded: “So, while many consumers may feel pressured by the need to spend this Christmas, this is the year for brands to take a more long-term approach, with loyalty in mind. 

“In the age of online retail, better value and quality service will be big selling points, and success won’t only be defined by a healthy bottom line, but through the organisations that genuinely and authentically connect with their customers in the run up to Christmas and beyond.”