Dubbed ‘the Superbowl of UK advertising’, the Christmas ad season is now fully underway. With these campaigns infamously planned up to a year in advance, this year all eyes are on how well advertisers have gauged the mood of the nation – if at all.

Research agency System1’s brand tracking of this year’s ads reinforces many of the principles we set out earlier this year when it comes to responding to COVID-19. Their winners balance nostalgia and light-heartedness, while losers remind the nation what a real turkey of a year it has been. System1 measures the extent to which Christmas ads connect to the right brain (the more emotional side) – and in doing so provide an indicator of their long-term success. 2-star is the norm, anything over a 4 is considered very strong, with 5+ best-in-class.

So far, this year’s haul has highlighted three themes that show how ads are resonating with consumers:

Stop reminding us this year will be different! We need no reminding how different 2020 has been. Especially not at Christmas. This is loud and clear in some of the lower scoring Christmas ads tracked so far. To the rationally driven left brain, Asda’s Christmas advert (2.7/6) delivers everything (value with all the trimmings). But the right brain quickly switches off at Sunny’s opening gambit “I guess Christmas is going to be different this year”. Even Tesco’s ‘No Naughty List’ gets a bit too close for comfort (4.1/6).

This is a timely reminder that empathy doesn’t have to mean reflecting the world as it really is.

Nostalgia dies hard. Our latest research via Lightbox Pulse showed that 50% of the UK is feeling nostalgic in lockdown 2.0. And this continues to be in evidence this Christmas.

Several of the top scoring ads tap into nostalgia through their use of characters – DFS’s use of Wallace & Gromit in their ad (5.5/6) and even Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot (an incredible 5.8/6) show how a sense of familiarity goes a long way amidst the madness.

In a year where nothing feels familiar, clinging on to traditions and old favorites can elicit joy and a sense of comfort.

Less time for tearjerkers Tugging at the heart strings is proving too much for many this Christmas – as reflected by Amazon’s surprisingly low score (a ‘still strong’ 3/6). A beautiful film telling the story of an aspiring ballerina whose dreams are thwarted by COVID failed to resonate with consumers in ways it might have done in previous years. Similarly, Disney’s ad telling the tale of a changing relationship between grandmother and granddaughter scores lower than you might expect (3.7/6) when it comes to right-brained metrics. Emotion is powerful, but in a year of ups and (mainly) downs, focusing on the ups goes further with consumers.

In many senses this will be a Christmas like no other. But System1’s research is a useful reminder that Christmas is a time for comfort, simple pleasures and a bit of a break from the daily grind.

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