Ghost of Christmas (ads) past: a retrospective from the brain’s POV

Ghost of Christmas (ads) past: a retrospective from the brain’s POV

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By Heather Andrew

As the New Year gets firmly underway, what could be better than a Christmas advertising retrospective? Consumer neuroscience specialists, Neuro-Insight, have drawn on research into 2016’s ads to pick out three key lessons for advertisers looking for Christmas success.

Last year’s Christmas advertising budget in the UK was an estimated £5.6 billion across all media, an increase of £300m on the rumoured spend of 2015. Furthermore, at the IPA’s Effectiveness Genesis conference just before Christmas, John Lewis’ Head of Marketing, Rachel Swift, stated that the company’s Christmas advertising campaign was their most profitable ROI, highlighting why they believed in investing so heavily in creativity. Given John Lewis has long been regarded as the gold standard in Christmas advertising, it’s no wonder that other companies have sought to emulate the brand’s success with similarly ambitious campaigns.

Bearing in mind the increasingly competitive nature of  Christmas advertising, and the desire for advertisers to pinpoint the key to “winning” Christmas, Neuro-Insight ran a few of last year’s most talked about Christmas adverts through a study to analyse the second-by-second brain response of viewers. The study, which used Neuro-Insight’s proprietary technology, Steady State Topography (SST), measured key elements of brain response such as the level of viewer engagement with the ad, which aspects of the ad are being successfully stored away in the brain’s long-term memory, and the extent to which viewers are emotional energised by what they’re seeing.

Drawing from the insights gathered from the research, Neuro-Insight’s Heather Andrew explains three key lessons for advertisers looking to create a Christmas cracker, and avoid a turkey.

Don’t let a tagline steal the show from your overall branding

House of Fraser
Throughout the festive period, House of Fraser grounded its advertising and marketing efforts with the tagline ‘Christmas is coming for you’. It’s this tagline that acts as the resolution to the story, and successfully triggers conceptual closure – the point at which the brain registers an end to the action, and stops taking in more information while it process everything it’s just experienced. Unfortunately, this means that the end branding – which occurs after this closure – is poorly encoded, and memory response remains low.

However, emotional intensity is strong throughout and key moments in the ad are associated with positive emotion. Luckily for House of Fraser, there is actually a strong peak of memory encoding at the start of the ad, including during a key branding moment, which saves the day given the weak end branding.

Bamboozling the brain with too many messages can have a negative impact on brand recall

In Asda’s Christmas offering, memory encoding is at a high level when the retailer’s branding is introduced – showing that the brain has found the information potentially useful. High memory response at branding moments is often an indicator of likely future purchase behaviour.

Nonetheless, the sheer number of brand messages the brain encounters in this ad means it is unclear whether they are all being successfully stored away; an offer message, an end line, Asda branding, and a tagline mean that there is quite a lot for the brand to take in. Consequently, the actual recall for this ad is quite low and the brand fails to make a strong impression.

A clear, intriguing narrative gives the brain an incentive to follow the story

John Lewis
John Lewis is often heralded as the ad which truly marks the start of Christmas. So, given its status, what is it that works from the brain’s perspective – was Buster the Boxer more bark than bite?

The clear linear narrative in this ad gives the brain a strong incentive to follow the story, creating strong memory peaks throughout. As the viewer waits with the little girl for Christmas morning to dawn, there is a sense of intrigue which is very compelling for the brain, and this is a further driver of memory encoding.

A third driver of memory encoding is disruption; our brains respond to potentially significant changes in the way that a narrative develops. In this ad, the rhythm of the music is disrupted as Buster bounces over the fence and this leads to a peak of memory response leading into the ad’s end line.

However, it’s not a perfect ad from the brain’s point of view; the end line, ‘Gifts that everyone will love’, acts as the conclusion of the ad and therefore triggers conceptual closure before the John Lewis branding appears on screen. Nonetheless, the ad benefits from a unique position in the market – as THE John Lewis Christmas ad, it can tap into very strong and salient pre-existing associations in the brain. Memory works by association – so this ad benefits from the adverts that have gone before and so still succeeds ultimately in delivering strong and positive brand attribution.

Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 05 Feb 2017
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