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What Makes a Christmas Ad? (According to an AI)



Discovering the DNA of the perfect festive ad with Niki Foteinopoulou, lead data scientist at Wunderman

What Makes a Christmas Ad? (According to an AI)

To the untrained eye, Christmas is probably a little, well… odd.

Especially if you were to try and understand it through the prism of seasonal advertising. A bearded pensioner with a thing for wearing a red suit on a breaking and entering spree; dead trees taking pride of place in our living rooms... I could go on.

So, we decided to see what a complete Christmas virgin - an AI - would make of it all. Hopefully, we’d discover the DNA of the perfect festive ad along the way.

In keeping with advertising conventions – here’s the science bit: our AI is called Loom, it allows us to analyse thousands of pieces of digital content at scale, whether that’s text, image or video, to help us understand online audience behaviours. In short, it’s a hugely powerful tool that can be used to solve numerous business-critical problems for clients. This year we decided to have some fun with it and let it analyse the nation’s favourite Christmas ads.  

So we pointed our AI friend towards YouTube and a curated playlist of the most viewed British festive ads of the past seven years to see if it could make sense of them. Tough gig. The first step was to ask Loom what – objectively – it could spot. ‘Gunshot’ leapt from the page… Not very merry. However, it becomes apparent this is down to the huge number of views for Sainsbury’s centennial Great War tearjerker from 2014.

We then took a different approach: rather than focusing on what had been viewed most we decided to measure what features reoccurred most regularly in our festive selection. This was more like it; everyone loves a big song at Christmas, albeit not necessarily a Christmas song as the John Lewis department for maudlin cover versions demonstrates. ‘Songs’ topped the list with 92 instances, followed by ‘Food’ (56) and then ‘Happiness’ (46). ‘Christmas’ or at least an identifiable version thereof doesn’t actually appear until joint fourth place - equal to ‘Cooking’ with 43 instances.

From here on in, we started to see the more traditional signifiers of Christmas, ‘Snow’ (37), ‘Christmas Tree’ (17), and ‘Santa Claus’ (7) for instance. What was (somewhat ironically) absent were representations of Christianity, other than ‘Choir’ which makes eight appearances. Loom also only recognised an actual ‘Church’ once. 

Clearly, contemporary ads are ditching the religion, so where does that leave us beyond the festive foods and snowscapes? One of the long-standing criticisms of secular Xmas is the rampant consumerism, yet it may be surprising that the most popular ads are fairly understated, with brands only appearing on a total of 28 occasions. Rather, the ad makers are focused on making us feel warm and fuzzy to encourage us to open our wallets.

Speaking of fuzzy, we know Brits are a nation of animal lovers and furred, feathered and, on two occasions, scaled friends feature prominently in Christmas ads. Dogs and puppies top the list appearing in 16 ads; our AI even spots some (other) ‘Dog-like mammals’, which turn out to be foxes, in John Lewis’ 2016 #BusterTheBoxer ad.

Cats and kittens also appear on 11 occasions, and it would appear our AI has expert knowledge of cats - it identifies the CGI star of Sainsburys’ 2015 ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ as being (apparently) an American Shorthair. I always thought she was a tabby, so that’s another cherished childhood memory dashed.

So, we have a recipe – start with a soundtrack base, stir in some happiness/sentimentality, drizzle with snow and (secular) Christmas iconography to taste. Oh, and a dog or ‘dog-like mammal’ of course…

So, how does this bear up under scrutiny? We decided to track the waxing and waning of the popularity of the ads to see if we could discern any patterns. The first result is a given, we all love the John Lewis ads and they have consistently been the most viewed each year. The retailer could be seen as the architect of the modern, secular ‘holiday’ ad and the release of its annual (non-votive) offering can now legitimately be seen as a key moment in the festive calendar. 

However, John Lewis is facing increasingly stiff competition and its hold over the Christmas season is loosening. At the start of the decade the company and, to a lesser extent Tesco, dominated the online viewing figures. This changed when Sainsbury’s crashed the party and arguably raised the bar with ‘1914’.

As the figures show ‘1914’ wasn’t just a calling card for Sainsbury’s, it was equally a challenge to John Lewis – and the advertising industry itself. More and more brands have since woken up to the importance of digital viewing as online audience figures for ‘prestige’ seasonal ads grow. While the extended running time of ‘1914’ is far beyond the norm, Christmas ads as a whole have become steadily longer and more ambitious as budgets have grown.

As we’ve seen there are certain conventions, but nothing is set in stone. John Lewis has decided to rip up a well-worn formula and jump on the celeb endorsement train this year. Iceland has done the contrary, swapping out party nibbles and minor celebrities for something more ambitious with its ‘Rang-tan’ ad. We don’t yet know if Iceland’s forward-thinking ethical stance will have an impact on the portrayals of excess in next year’s ads. Time will tell. 

The red line running through all the best performing Christmas ads is they make us ‘feel’ something, whether that’s joy, anticipation, or now it would seem outrage. In a multicultural and broadly secular culture, the holiday season can mean a lot of things to different people. As such, falling back on standard tropes can make a brand seem old-fashioned, or at worst out-of-touch. Christmas ads may be the only ones people pay really close attention to all year, so above-all-else it’s imperative they make a statement. 

Niki Foteinopoulou is lead data scientist at Wunderman

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Categories: Retail Stores, Retail and Restaurants

Wunderman Thompson London, Sat, 05 Jan 2019 15:40:18 GMT